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Miami-Dade judge clears the way for lawsuit over Florida International University fees

Building on Florida International University's campus

TALLAHASSEE — A Miami-Dade County circuit judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Florida International University that seeks refunds of fees collected from students when the school’s campus was shut down in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge William Thomas, in a 23-page order Thursday, also certified the lawsuit as a class action.

He wrote that students suing the university “adequately plead the existence of an express contract between themselves and FIU,” in part by producing proof that they paid fees associated with services that weren’t provided by the school.

The students argued that the university breached contracts when it did not deliver the services.

The lawsuit, filed in April on behalf of students who attended FIU during the spring, summer and fall of 2020 alleged that the students paid fees like an “athletic fee,” a “health fee” and a “transportation access fee.”

“Despite substantially reducing or eliminating the services and access to facilities funded by the fees during these semesters, FIU continued to charge students each fee and has not reimbursed students for the portion of their spring 2020 fees that are attributable to the time when the campuses were closed, nor for the amounts that students paid during the remaining semesters in 2020,” Thomas wrote in the order.

Thomas also said in the order that if students did not pay fees, “they could be subject to penalties such as academic suspension, withholding of student records and transcripts, and additional fees if sent to collections.”

Adam Moskowitz, an attorney representing the students, said in a statement Monday that the lawsuit aims to recover more than $10 million collected from FIU students. Moskowitz also pointed to 12 other class-action lawsuits filed in Florida because of schools refusing to reimburse fees.

In October, an Alachua County circuit judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit that contended the University of Florida should refund fees to students who were forced to learn remotely during 2020.

Attorneys representing UF appealed the decision in November to the 1st District Court of Appeal, arguing that the university should be shielded from the lawsuit by “sovereign immunity,” which helps protect government agencies in legal disputes.

Florida International University used a similar argument in its attempt to get the Miami-Dade lawsuit dismissed.

Moskowitz in his statement Monday urged the state university system’s Board of Governors to issue refunds to all university students who paid fees during the 2020 academic year, rather than fight the lawsuit.

“Hopefully, the volunteers on our State Board of Governors will now follow many other states and simply refund students all of these stolen charges, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on defense law firms,” Moskowitz said.