In previous posts1,2, we reported on several of the many lawsuits across the country in which students have sued their colleges and universities for tuition reimbursement as a result of not receiving certain services during (in most of those lawsuits) the spring and summer semesters of 2020. The colleges and universities have usually prevailed in those suits, either by winning outright dismissals or obtaining denials of plaintiffs’ attempts to pursue their suits as class actions.
In a recent 23-page order, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas bucked those trends to some extent, refusing in part to grant a motion to dismiss filed by Florida International University. The judge determined that the thousands of students suing the defendant “adequately plead the existence of an express contract between themselves and FIU.” Though, of course, not a final decision on the merits of the lawsuit, Judge Thomas’ ruling is a powerful reminder that this type of lawsuit, which has become common in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is certainly not “slam dunks” for institutions of higher learning.
Judge Thomas noted in his order that the plaintiff students had demonstrated that they had paid for services that FIU had not provided, such as an “athletic fee” or a “transportation access fee.”
He also observed that, if they failed to pay those fees, the students “could be subject to penalties, such as academic suspension, withholding of student records and transcripts, and additional fees if sent to collections.”
Representatives of the FIU student plaintiffs and plaintiffs in 11 separate putative class actions against other public institutions assert that the aggregate amount of reimbursements owed to the students is in excess of $100 million.
Defense attorneys in the FIU lawsuit argued that the court should insulate the university from potential liability, citing the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which can in certain circumstances shield government agencies in litigation. Judge Thomas granted with prejudice the university’s motion to dismiss on sovereign immunity grounds as to plaintiffs’ unjust enrichment claim, but denied the motion as to plaintiffs’ breach of contract claim, which will now proceed to the next stages of litigation.