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University of Florida fights suit over COVID-19 student refunds

Attorneys for UF's board of trustees argue that the lead plaintiff did not have an “express written contract” that could back his contention that he was paying tuition and fees for in-person instruction and on-campus activities.

The University of Florida Board of Trustees is asking a federal judge to toss out a potential class-action lawsuit that contends the school should be required to refund tuition and fees to students after closing its campus in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorneys for the trustees last week filed a 17-page motion to dismiss the case, which alleges breach of contract and “unjust enrichment” by the university after students were forced to take online classes to finish the spring semester.

The motion focuses heavily on the issue of sovereign immunity, which helps shield government agencies from liability in lawsuits. The trustees’ attorneys wrote that the named plaintiff in the case, Dylan Egleston, did not have an “express written contract” that could back his contention that he was paying tuition and fees for in-person instruction and on-campus activities. Such a contract would be needed to overcome the university’s sovereign-immunity protections, the motion indicated.

“Here, plaintiff has not, and cannot, plausibly point to an express written contract upon which his complaint is based,” the motion said. “Because plaintiff can never plausibly plead the existence of an express, written contract, his claim is completely barred by the application of sovereign immunity and the claim should be dismissed with prejudice.”

The lawsuit was filed last month in federal court in Gainesville on behalf of Egleston and other spring semester University of Florida students. It said Egleston enrolled at the school “to earn a degree that included the service of taking courses at the campus with live teacher interaction.”

“Plaintiff and the putative class members contracted with defendant for certain services and paid for those services in the form of tuition and other fees,” the lawsuit said. “As a result of limitations defendant has imposed, defendant has not delivered the services that plaintiff and the putative class contracted and paid for. As a result, plaintiff and the putative class are entitled to a refund on tuition and fees paid for services, facilities, access and/or opportunities not delivered.”

The lawsuit is one of at least three that have been filed against the state university system seeking refunds of money that students paid for the spring semester. The other two lawsuits were filed in Leon County circuit court by Florida International University graduate student Sarah Fagundez and University of Florida graduate student Anthony Rojas against the state university system’s Board of Governors.

The details of the cases differ, but all three make arguments about breach of contract and unjust enrichment. Attorneys for the Board of Governors had not filed arguments in the Fagundez and Rojas cases as of Wednesday, according to online dockets.

Similar lawsuits also have been filed against universities in other states that closed their campuses and moved to online instruction to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

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