Appeals court rules University of South Florida cannot use sovereign immunity to dismiss COVID-19 fees lawsuit
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Appeals court rules University of South Florida cannot use sovereign immunity to dismiss COVID-19 fees lawsuit

A Florida appeals court Wednesday held that the University of South Florida (USF) cannot invoke sovereign immunity to avoid a COVID-19 student fees lawsuit.

USF appealed a trial court’s denial of “its motion to dismiss in which it asserted the defense of sovereign immunity.” USF argued in its appeal that sovereign immunity should apply, which would shield the university from the proposed class action, as it is a public university. However, Florida law waives sovereign immunity for torts, subject to exceptions. The university, therefore, asserted that the waiver only applied to explicit, written contracts.

Judge Darryl Casanueva of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal rejected this argument, saying that the “terms and conditions” of the student registration agreement contained “a promise by USF to provide any specific services in exchange for the fees it charged students.” He further noted “[w]hen the [Florida] legislature has authorized a state entity to enter into a contract, it clearly intends that the contract be valid and binding on both parties.”

The class action alleges USF improperly collected fees from students for on-campus services which the university did not provide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Judge Casanueva’s holding affirmed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss the class action and rejected the use of USF’s sovereign immunity defense at this stage of the class action. However, USF could argue sovereign immunity in a motion for summary judgment “if supported by the facts.”