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Chess Pieces in Motion in the ACC and Florida State Lawsuits

ACC and Florida State Lawsuits

With nothing more than the mere existence of the Atlantic Coast Conference as we know it at stake, the chess pieces are in motion in the ACC and Florida State lawsuits against each other. Friday, the first hearing was held in Mecklenburg County Court on Florida State’s motion to dismiss the ACC lawsuit against the school. We will have our first answers in about two weeks in the matter of ACC. Florida State Board of Trustees.

The lawsuit in Mecklenburg County more or less mirrors a lawsuit filed by the Florida State Board of Trustees in Leon County, Florida. The bottom line is that FSU wants out of the conference’s Grant of Rights so that it can leave the ACC while still owning its media rights. The school is also looking to lessen or minimize the exit fee, estimated to be about $130 million. Walking away without its media rights until the GoR expires in 2036 could cost FSU more than $400 million.

Both sides were represented by a small army of legal counsel in Charlotte on Friday. ESPN was also there with attorneys to be heard on a separate motion to seal discovery. Sixteen attorneys and legal staff were there for the hearing.

ACC Looking for the Home Field Advantage

Attorneys for the ACC and Florida State agreed that the hearing basically boiled down to a forum fight. Bailey King, representing Florida State, contended that the case should not be heard in Charlotte. There is no mandate for litigation venue or jurisdiction in the Grant of Rights or the ACC Constitution. Thus, King said, the court needs to consider sovereign immunity clauses with FSU protected by Florida state law.

The ACC filed the suit for breach of contract on December 21st, 2023. That was a full day before the Florida State Board of Trustees even held a vote to approve filing its suit in Leon County, looking to get out of the conference. ACC counsel James Cooney III suggested that by even discussing leaving the conference before the Grant of Rights contract expires in 2036, the school violated the agreement. FSU attorneys countered that the ACC’s filing was a misguided attempt at “first to file” status to control the venue.

Did the ACC Violate Its Bylaws?

King, for Florida State, alleged that the ACC had not even followed its own bylaws in filing the suit. He pointed out that the conference’s own rules mandate a vote of the current membership with a 2/3 majority approval required to begin litigation. King said in the haste to rush to file first, the conference did not hold the vote. ACC counsel responded that the vote was held later, on January 22, 2024, before the submission of the first amended complaint. Cooney added that as an “Unincorporated voluntary organization,” the ACC was not subject to court interpretation of its bylaws. The vote did eventually happen, and 10 ACC schools voted to approve the lawsuit against one of their own.

In an unusual move, Florida State argued that its signature page on the revised Grant of Rights, signed in 2016, was not valid. They noted it was signed by then-president John Thrasher when the school required it be signed by a member of the board of trustees. Cooney called that a “Whack-a-mole argument,” noting that Florida State had willingly taken tens of millions of dollars in revenue from the ACC in the last seven years, regardless of who signed the document.

Judge Louis Bledsoe III engaged with both sides throughout the two hours of the argument. He asked both sides questions about precedents within contract law cases.

ESPN Looking to Seal Documents

Attorneys representing ESPN were also heard in conjunction with the ACC counsel on sealing some of the case files and discovery. The contention from ESPN and the ACC is that a completely open docket filing would expose, “trade secrets” as to how the conference and ESPN arrived at their contractual agreements. Counsel for ESPN said it was vital that its procedures with a media partner not be opened up to competitors.

ACC counsel said Florida State had already violated some of that confidentiality in the Leon County filing, by submitting exhibits that would have otherwise been redacted or sealed. It noted that the Grant of Rights is supposed to be a secured document.

FSU attorneys said much of what ESPN and the ACC were looking to keep private was already out in the public domain. Further, it has been reported on by the media. FSU contends that items like the GoR, which some members of the media have had for years, came via leaks within ESPN and/or the ACC.

The ACC admitted that it had submitted only about 1/10th of the contract paperwork between ESPN and the conference. The conference attorneys said they were trying not to bog the court down in elements that were not pertinent to the case. FSU contends the ACC is withholding discovery.

At the end of the three-plus hour hearing, Judge Bledsoe said he would not issue a ruling from the bench. He said he would issue a written order by April 9th. He noted that he is aware that is also the first day of hearings in the Leon County version of the case. The ACC has filed a motion to dismiss the suit where Florida State is the plaintiff.

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