The latest ruling by the Texas Supreme Court in college football coach Mike Leach’s case against Texas Tech University made for good press. However, in real terms it doesn’t mean much.
Last week’s ruling did not vindicate Texas Tech or anyone else. It did not mean that a court had ruled that Texas Tech and its employees had done nothing wrong. It simply means that no monetary damages can be awarded against the university or its employees.
Leach brought civil lawsuit against the university alleging that his contract was improperly voided without due process and that he was, thus, wrongfully terminated by Texas Tech after the 2009 football season. Leach has also sued ESPN, its college football analyst Craig James and public relations firm, Spaeth Communications, for airing and publicizing allegations against Leach that he improperly treated James’ son, Adam.
Meanwhile, Ted Liggett, the lead attorney for Leach, has indicated that he intends to pursue the case as far as possible. This means that he will file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that a basic state constitutional right is at stake and the nation’s highest court should take the case because of the potential to set precedent in an area of constitutional law.
Aside from any lofty goals involving constitutional principles, Mr. Liggett knows this will keep the case in the public eye and can do nothing but help the second case earn a financial reward.
The Texas Supreme Court last week issued a ruling, without written comment, in the case involving Leach, who now is the Washington State head coach, and Texas Tech. The Court let stand a lower court ruling in the civil lawsuit brought by Leach against the university.
The trial court judge in the case granted the university’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The university and three top officials who were also named as defendants were all removed as defendants as a result of the Court’s ruling. The judge had ruled that Leach could move forward and try to prove the facts of his case. However, he could not recover any monetary damages based on the Texas statute covering sovereign immunity.
The University and Leach had both appealed the parts of the ruling that went against them. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for Texas had upheld the trial judge’s ruling in an opinion issued in 2011.
Sovereign immunity is an old English common law concept that prohibited anyone from suing the Crown since the King was ordained by God. In the United States, state legislatures have passed statutes that provide broad protection for “state actors” who commit an act within the ordinary and normal course of doing their jobs. Such employees, and the entities that employ them, cannot be sued for damages because of their protected status.
The rationale for these statutes is that government bodies need such protection to properly govern. Acts of government bodies (and the individuals who make up government bodies) will always offend someone. Governments would be hamstrung if every time an official acted someone could bring a lawsuit. Leach and his attorneys argue that, if sovereign immunity applies in this situation, any contract entered into by a public, government entity would be void because it could never be enforced in a court of law.
Courts in various states have carved out narrow exceptions to this doctrine. The Texas Supreme Court ruling essentially holds that no such circumstance exists in this case.
Leach sued the university after he was fired for alleged mistreatment of a football player named Adam James. Leach allegedly ordered James banished from the football practice fields to an equipment shed because of actions that Leach deemed inappropriate. He allegedly made James stand in the dark for long periods of time.
Adams and his father, former Southern Methodist and National Football League running back Craig James, alleged that Jones had suffered a head injury and that Leach inappropriately and inhumanely punished the younger James because Leach thought the young man was malingering and because Leach wanted him to quit to free up a scholarship. Adam Jones did transfer to UTEP where he just finished playing his senior season as a tight end for the Miners.
Craig James is employed by ESPN as an announcer and studio analyst for college football. When the allegations against Leach were made, the coach was fired a few days before the date a clause in his contract would have required the university to pay him an $800,000 longevity bonus. Leach alleged that the real reason he was fired was that the school wanted to avoid paying him the bonus and simply wanted to hire a coach who would work for less money. Leach claimed that the firing unjustly tarnished his professional reputation.
Leach’s second lawsuit against ESPN, James and Spaeth Communications was filed in early 2010 to beat the statute of limitations in Texas for libel claims. The trial court had delayed the case pending the outcome of the action against the university and its three officials. Leach can move forward now with the second case. The same attorneys filed both lawsuits for Leach.
Mr. Liggett has indicated that he will still seek a trial against the Texas Tech strictly on the merits of Leach’s allegations. Both appellate courts have also ruled against the university on the issue of whether the case can proceed strictly on the truthfulness of the allegations in the complaint.
A trial involving the university could still be very important, because a jury in that case could find that Coach Leach was unjustly terminated and that the allegations against him were untrue. Such a finding would do nothing but boost his remaining case.
Leach has already given a deposition in the Texas Tech case and done what he needs to do. As long as his attorneys are willing to pursue the case on a contingency fee basis (attorneys get paid only if they win), it isn’t costing him any money. He is free to attend to his duties as coach at Washington State with few distractions from the court.
Leach earns enough money that winning a monetary judgment may be secondary for him. He wants to clear his name. His libel case may have been, in fact, negatively impacted by his hiring at Washington State for around $2 million per year because he no longer can argue that he has been “blackballed” in the coaching profession.
Meanwhile, Mr. Liggett also talks about wanting to overturn the doctrine of sovereign immunity once and for all in U.S. law. He said last week that: “We believe the doctrine of sovereign immunity has to be overturned. We feel that it denies due process, right to trial. It is fundamental constitutional issues at work here. The people are sovereign, not the state.”
Aside from the possibility of re-making constitutional law, an appeal keeps Mr. Liggett in the news and maintains a threat that could eventually help lead to a settlement in the second case. Such are the factors that work just below the surface in our legal system. In the meantime, Texas Tech officials are trumpeting a “vindication” of their behavior in the matter and hoping that the case will just go away.
Last week’s decision represented several things but none of them was any finding that Texas Tech officials acted properly in the manner in which they fired Leach just before the team’s bowl game following the 2009 season. This case won’t be over until the U.S. Supreme Court says it is.
In addition to serving as The Sport Digest editor and teaching classes at the Academy, Mr. Tyler was formerly a practicing attorney. He teaches courses at the Academy in sports law and risk management. For more information on these courses, see http://ussa.edu.