Court backs college in COVID-19 shutdown case
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
In one of numerous cases stemming from campus shutdowns during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, an appeals court rejected a potential class-action lawsuit against Miami Dade College over fees collected from students in 2020.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal ordered the dismissal of the lawsuit filed by Fernando Verdini, a Miami Dade College nursing student who was required to learn remotely in the spring and summer of 2020 after the pandemic hit the state.
Like similar lawsuits filed in Florida and other states, Verdini alleged a breach of contract because he paid fees for on-campus services that were not provided during the shutdown. The case involved fees for such things as student services, capital improvements and technology. It did not involve tuition.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas last year refused to dismiss the case, but the appeals court said Miami Dade College was shielded by sovereign immunity, which generally protects government agencies from lawsuits. The appeals court said sovereign immunity blocks such a lawsuit “in the absence of an express contract.”
“Because Appellee Fernando Verdini has not alleged breach of an express, written contract to provide on-campus or in-person services sufficient to overcome sovereign immunity, we reverse (the circuit judge’s refusal to dismiss the case),” said last Wednesday’s 16-page ruling, written by Judge Norma Lindsey and joined by Judges Kevin Emas and Monica Gordo.
Verdini supported his breach-of-contract allegations with documents such as invoices that detailed the fees. In declining to dismiss the case, Thomas pointed to those invoices.
“It is the finding of the court that plaintiff’s invoices, as attached to the complaint, sufficiently contain the express written terms and provide the specific services MDC (Miami Dade College) was contractually obligated to provide in exchange for plaintiff’s payment of ‘fees’ to survive a motion to dismiss,” Thomas wrote.
But the appeals court said last Wednesday the “issue here is whether Verdini has sufficiently identified an express, written contract to provide on-campus or in-person services.”
“As an initial matter, there is nothing in the complaint or the attachments that expressly requires MDC to provide on-campus services in exchange for the student services, financial aid, capital improvement, and technology fees,” the ruling said. “Moreover, Verdini has not identified anything that expressly prohibits MDC from providing remote services in exchange for these fees.”
Judges have taken differing stances on whether colleges and universities breached contracts when they required students to learn remotely to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For example, an Alachua County circuit judge in October refused to dismiss a potential-class action lawsuit against the University of Florida. Like in the Miami Dade College case, attorneys for the university argued that the school was shielded by sovereign immunity. The university has taken that case to the 1st District Court of Appeal.
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