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Florida lawmakers target lawsuits seeking pandemic-era refunds from colleges

Bills in the state House and Senate aim to protect schools from liability for limiting their operations because of COVID-19.
Students walk the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, one of several state schools that have been sued over tuition and fees during the pandemic.
Students walk the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, one of several state schools that have been sued over tuition and fees during the pandemic. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 21
Updated Apr. 21

A bill making its way through the Legislature would shield Florida’s public colleges and universities from the lawsuits many students have filed during the pandemic, contending their schools should refund them for the value they never received when campuses were largely shut down.

The legislation would apply retroactively, nullifying what it describes as “a wave” of class action student lawsuits that have hit the court system since last spring. The students contend their schools were wrong to continue charging full tuition and fees at a time when most classes were shifted to online platforms and other student services were curtailed.

A passage in the bill argues that the legislation is an “overpowering public necessity” since colleges and universities “had little choice but to close or restrict access to their campuses in an effort to protect the health of their students, educators, staff and communities.” It says there is “no legal precedent” on how to handle the situation.

Those provisions are part of a large bill dealing with the many ways the pandemic has impacted education, from K-12 school grades to testing requirements for graduation.

The Senate version went through that chamber’s rules committee Tuesday and a similar version passed on the House floor Wednesday.

Adam Moskowitz, an attorney and law professor whose firm is representing students in 16 lawsuits against Florida universities and colleges, said he first approached the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education to resolve the cases. He argued that other states have chosen to credit students for fees during the COVID-19 crisis. Members of both boards told him to sue the schools directly, he said.

Trying to change the law retroactively sets “horrible” legal precedent, Moskowitz said.

If a university went to buy 10,000 computers, he argued, it wouldn’t tell the computer company to wait for payment because of COVID-19.

“So why are they treating the students worse than a vendor?” he asked. “It’s horrible precedent. It’s not even on behalf of a private company. These are the public schools that are supposed to look out for the students.”

Howard Bushman, an attorney with Moskowitz’s firm, spoke to the Senate rules committee on Tuesday.

“This bill says that schools can charge money from students for services the school did not provide,” Bushman told committee members. “How is that legal, ethical or honorable? It surely helps the schools, but not the kids and the parents.”

Valerie Marie Moore, a third-year doctoral student at the University of South Florida who is suing the school’s board of trustees, was among those who weighed in against the bill. She spoke of facing food insecurity during the pandemic and of being the caretaker for her father.

“I’m not a trust fund baby, Bright Futures recipient, nor have I received any fellowships to assist with any of my education,” she said.

Moskowitz said, while he’s sympathetic to private businesses financially impacted by COVID, he doesn’t think public universities should be passing on their challenges to students or parents.

“There’s no dispute: The labs were closed, so why would you pay a lab fee?” he said. “And we’re not talking tens or hundreds of dollars, but thousands.”

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said that K-12 and higher education institutions across the state should be praised for the way they pivoted during the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, the schools still provided the services,” he said.