A former student of a public university in Florida filed suit against the latter on behalf of himself and a class of similarly situated students in order to recover fees for on-campus services that were not provided to students during the pandemic.
In order to be successful, plaintiff had to prove the existence of an express contract between him and the university. Otherwise, being the latter a public institution, sovereign immunity would have applied. In support of his claim, plaintiff attached several documents, including a spring 2020 tuition statement, a general statement of tuition, various fee estimates for the 2019-2020 academic year and a copy of the university’s financial liability agreement. He asserted that such documents made up an express written contract between him and the university for specific on-campus resources and services.
While the first instance judge agreed with him, the second instance judge upheld the appeal filed by defendant and dismissed plaintiff’s claim. According to the Court of Appeal, plaintiff had failed to prove that he had stipulated with the university an express written contract expressly addressing the obligation of the university to provide on-campus services. Indeed, the financial liability agreement provided by plaintiff only referred to the university’s provision of “educational services”, but this general phrase could not be understood as an express promise to provide in-person and on-campus services to a student at a specific time. One of the members of the panel of judges issued a dissenting opinion, finding that the wording of the financial liability agreement was clearly contractual in nature and that overall, the documents submitted by plaintiffs – which should have been read together – constituted a binding and valid written contract. Given the importance of the issue at stake and the extent of the litigation on the matter, the entire panel agreed to certify the following question of great public importance to the Florida Supreme Court: whether sovereign immunity bars a breach of contract claim against a state university based on the university’s failure to provide its students with access to on-campus services and facilities.
Reference: University of Florida Board of Trustees v. Rojas, Court of Appeal of Florida, 22 November 2022