Fla. Appeals Court Pauses Block On School Reopening Plan

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (August 28, 2020, 10:48 PM EDT) -- A Florida appeals court on Friday paused a state judge's decision to block Gov. Ron DeSantis' plan for reopening schools for in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic, though the appeals court turned down the governor's request to send the case straight to the Sunshine State's highest court.

The court issued a short order reinstating an automatic pause on the judge's order blocking DeSantis' plan, meaning that as things stand, the Republican governor can go ahead with the reopening. The court didn't immediately lay out its reasoning, but said it would later issue an order explaining the decision.

The court also swept aside DeSantis' argument that the case should be passed directly on to the state Supreme Court, saying the issue wasn't one in need of "immediate resolution" by a higher authority.

The appeals court's decision Friday came after a whirlwind of filings that kicked off Thursday when Judge Charles Dodson lifted the automatic stay placed on his earlier order shredding DeSantis' move to open all schools by Aug. 31.

DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had appealed Judge Dodson's Monday order blocking them from going ahead with an executive order mandating that Florida's schools open five days a week despite the ongoing risk posed by the virus.

That appeal put an automatic stay on the order under Florida court rules. Judge Dodson on Thursday lifted the stay, saying the governor's plans could cause irreparable harm to students and teachers amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the appeals court overturned his decision Friday.

In his injunction order, Judge Dodson ripped the DeSantis administration for using Executive Order 6, issued July 6, to strong-arm school districts into reopening by threatening funding cuts. The judge said this "essentially ignored the requirement of school safety" by effectively demanding that teachers and students return to "extremely unsafe conditions."

Less than two hours later, however, DeSantis filed notices of appeal in the two cases referenced by the order, which were consolidated before Judge Dodson for pretrial purposes. The cases have also been consolidated at the appellate level, according to Friday's order.

The first of the challenges to DeSantis' executive order was filed July 19 by students and teachers in Orange County, and the second was filed July 20 by the state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, along with several individual educators and parents.

Judge Dodson previously rejected the state's bid to dismiss the suit brought by the FEA but urged the union and the state to hash out their differences and come to an agreement.

Counsel for the parties did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

The plaintiffs in the FEA case are represented by Kendall Coffey, Josefina M. Aguila and Scott A. Hiaasen of Coffey Burlington PL, Ronald G. Meyer of Meyer Brooks Blohm & Hearn PA, Lucia Piva, Mark Richard and Kathleen M. Phillips of Phillips Richard & Rind PA, Katherine E. Giddings, Kristen Fiore, Gerald Cope, and Ryan O'Connor of Akerman LLP, and Kimberly C. Menchion of the Florida Education Association. The plaintiffs in the Orange County case are represented by Jacob V. Stuart PA and William J. Wieland II of Wieland & DeLattre PA.

The governor is represented in-house by Joseph W. Jacquot, Raymond F. Treadwell and Joshua E. Pratt. The governor and state entities are additionally represented by David M. Wells, Kenneth B. Bell, Lauren V. Purdy and Nathan W. Hill of Gunster.

The cases are Florida Education Association et al. v. DeSantis et al., case number 20-2470, and Bellefleur v. DeSantis, case number 20-2472, in the First District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida.

--Editing by Breda Lund.

Update: This article has been updated to include additional plaintiffs' counsel information.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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