A Florida state appeals court has reversed the findings of two lower courts, and ruled that two former Florida A&M University coaches should be allowed to present their breach of contract claim at trial.
Specifically, the First District Court of Appeal reversed the 2017 circuit court decisions, which recognized FAMU’s legal right to fire head football coach Earl Holmes and head basketball coach Clemon Johnson without paying the remainder of their contracts.
“We find, based on the expressed terms of the agreements and reading the agreements and incorporated regulations as a whole, that ambiguities exist such that FAMU was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, the summary judgments are reversed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings,” according to the DCA ruling.
By way of background, Holmes struggled as the university’s football coach, going 6-16 before he was fired in 2014. In January 2015, he filed a civil lawsuit against FAMU claiming he was owed the remaining $400,000 on his contract. Johnson, meanwhile, was fired in 2014 in the third year of a four-year contract. He amassed a record of 32-64. He also sought the remainder on his contract.
FAMU attorneys argued before the lower courts that the “unambiguous language” of the agreement provided FAMU Board of Trustees the right to terminate the coaches’ agreement with a 60-day notice. Attorneys said this was consistent with employment agreements it had with its other head coaches.
The coaches’ attorney countered that while FAMU had the right to fire the coaches “for cause,” it chose not to, instead opting to use the 60-day notice inside the contract, which absolved the university from any settlement.
“You can’t say you have a four-year contract and have cause in the contract and then insert this provision that says you can be terminated without cause,” the attorney told the media. “The appellate court ruled it ambiguous.”
In its conclusion, the appeals court wrote:
“Because of conflicts in the express terms of both coaches’ contracts, including FAMU’s regulations incorporated therein, the early terminations of these employment contracts without cause merely upon sixty days’ notice may have violated the specific terms of the contracts. Because of this ambiguity FAMU was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, the summary judgments for FAMU and against Holmes and Johnson are reversed as to all counts, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings.”
For an in-depth read of the issue as it relates to this particular case, check out Marty Greenberg’s article here: https://law.marquette.edu/assets/sports-law/Earl%20Holmes%20Article%2010.10.pdf
The appeals court decision can be read here: https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/4567437/earl-holmes-v-florida-am-university-by-and-through-etc/