Campus closure case goes to state Supreme Court

The Florida State Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear a court case against the University of South Florida for campus closures and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The higher court could overturn an earlier decision circuit court decision in June, which denied USF’s motion to dismiss and cleared the way for a possible jury trial. The university’s lawyers filed a petition for the call last week.

PhD student ValerieMarie Moore originally filed a class action lawsuit against USF last March on behalf of herself and her peers. He alleges the university was in breach of contract when it moved to distance learning in 2020 and again in the spring of 2021 and failed to provide tuition-paid services.

“USF’s decision to move to online classes, to ask or encourage students to leave campus, and to close its campus facilities and services were responsible decisions to make, but it is unfair and illegal. for USF to retain the fees and pass the losses on to the students and their families,” the lawsuit alleges.

In May 2020, USF reported issuing more than $12 million in refunds students for accommodation and food costs.

Althea Johnson, director of media relations at USF, said Inside Higher Education that the university does not comment on ongoing litigation; the university’s attorneys also declined to comment. A lawyer for the student complainants did not respond to a request for comment.

When the first campus closure trials took place last year, the courts seemed skeptical legal arguments from plaintiffs, dismissing dozens of initial cases. But since then many more have been allowed to stand trial despite repeated attempts by universities to block them. Some cases initially dismissed, such as those against American University, George Washington University and Baylor Universitywere revived by the Courts of Appeal at the beginning of this year.

Same goal, new tactic

Universities that have asked the courts to dismiss breach of contract suits often cite the “educational malpractice doctrine,” a legal argument that posits that educational institutions cannot be sued for the quality of the education they offer because “quality” is subjective and difficult to prove.

Many judges have denied these petitions because the students’ cases are not based on the quality of their education but on specific promises, namely in-person classes and on-campus residence, which were not provided due to of the pandemic.

“Almost all of [the institutions] lost that argument because the court said [students] don’t argue about the value of their education,” said Audrey Anderson, an attorney at Bass, Berry and Sims and former vice chancellor and general counsel at Vanderbilt University. “What they’re saying is, ‘You promised us certain things in a contract and one of those things was in-person education, and we didn’t get it. “”

USF’s case for dismissal, however, does not rest on an educational malpractice argument. Instead, it relies on a broad interpretation of the 11th Amendment to the US Constitution, also known as sovereign immunity. This is an argument that applies only to state-run public institutions. Another campus closure case in Florida, Verdini v. Miami Dade College, was fired by a different appeals court in April based on a similar sovereign immunity argument.

Anderson said that’s likely what made the USF case attractive to the Florida Supreme Court.

“The State Supreme Court will not be as interested in determining the factual obligations of the University of South Florida’s contracts. It’s not the kind of question they want to spend their time on,” she said. “But a question like what actions are state universities immune to? This is something that really deserves their attention.

USF attorneys say that as a public institution and therefore an extension of the state of Florida, the university cannot be sued by any citizen without state consent. Their appeal to the state Supreme Court argues that the circuit court erred in denying their motion to dismiss in June because plaintiff students should have to provide written proof of the contract terms they claim were violated. .

“The waiver of sovereign immunity for contract claims is limited to suits on express written contracts,” USF attorneys wrote in their petition.

The Circuit Court of Appeals, on the other hand, had stated that the USF Class Registration Agreement – which reads: “By clicking ‘Submit Changes’ below, I enter into a legal and binding contract with USF” – such as a potential written contract with students, although it does not list the specific services promised.

A legal lifeboat on the line

USF is not the only institution attempting to use sovereign immunity to block legal action against student campus closures. The University of North Carolina System appealed to its own state supreme court last month to reverse a lower court decision deny that motion to dismisswhich was also based on a sovereign immunity argument.

“This decision is not only inconsistent with North Carolina law and pleading standards, it also ignores the fundamental relationship between [UNC] and its students…and erodes the doctrine of sovereign immunity in a way that would invite a massive influx of litigation against the state and its agencies,” the UNC system petition claims.

Joshua Ellis, UNC system associate vice president for media relations, said Inside Higher Education that the system does not comment on ongoing disputes.

Even if USF’s argument succeeds in the state Supreme Court, it would not necessarily apply to public institutions in other states.

“It really varies from state to state as to what the state declared itself immune to,” Anderson said. “They could win in Florida and have the same facts in North Carolina and lose there, because North Carolina law is different.”

Many private universities facing similar breach of contract lawsuits have settled for $1 million, including deep-pocketed Ivy League institutions like brown university and Columbia University, and smaller institutions such as Lindenwood University in Missouri. But Anderson said that with the strength of their sovereign immunity claims at stake, it makes sense that USF and other public institutions would want to litigate rather than settle, even if their legal costs exceed any potential settlement sum.

“Public universities really want to strengthen sovereign immunity, so having the ability to clarify the law around the contours of that principle is the kind of case where an institution might reasonably say, ‘Let’s not settle, let’s get on with this. ‘” Anderson said. “The savings will be much greater if they can make it clear that students just can’t pursue this stuff.”

At the same time, she added, there is a danger that the USF scheme will backfire. If the state Supreme Court upholds the circuit court’s denial, not only will the university remain subject to the lawsuit, but the principle of sovereign immunity could be weakened.

“There is a danger that you will make the wrong decision, which will reduce things more than [institutions] I want them shrunk,” Anderson said. “There are always risks and rewards to be weighed against each other in litigation.”

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