By William Robers, Shareholder, Sparks Willson Borges Brandt & Johnson
A federal magistrate judge recently recommended that the civil lawsuit filed by former Auburn baseball coach, Sunny Golloway, against Auburn and several members of its athletics department be dismissed with prejudice. On March 21, 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles S. Coody ruled that Golloway’s wrongful termination suit should be dismissed following a motion filed by the defendants last summer.
Golloway and Auburn had executed a written coaching contract on June 14, 2013, which included a buyout clause entitling Golloway to $1,000,000 if he was terminated without cause. Golloway was fired on Sept. 27, 2015. The facts surrounding the firing are disputed. Golloway alleged that he was fired without cause, and brought suit to enforce the $1,000,000 buyout clause and to “redeem his good name.” Among the causes of action, Golloway claimed that (1) Auburn had breached its written contract with Golloway; (2) Auburn had breached a contract of “permanent employment” after alleging that Jay Jacobs, the Auburn Athletic Director, had orally promised that Golloway would be hired for “as many [years] as you want;” (3) Jacobs defamed Golloway by stating in a press conference that Golloway had been dismissed “with cause;” (4) Auburn and Jacobs had committed fraud in the inducement by making oral commitments and misrepresentations at the time of the written contract; and (5) the named athletic department personnel intentionally interfered with the written contract.
Auburn and the other defendants denied all of Golloway’s claims, arguing that Golloway was terminated for cause. Auburn cited 11 different reasons to terminate Golloway for cause, including several violations of NCAA, SEC and Auburn rules and regulations. (In a letter dated Jan. 30, 2017, the NCAA Committee on Infractions confirmed that it had no record in Golloway’s “past involvement in any Level I/Level II/major NCAA infractions.” Regardless, Auburn claimed that the NCAA found four Level III violations by Golloway, and that Auburn’s termination decision had been accepted by the SEC and the NCAA.)
The defendants filed a motion on June 17, 2016 to dismiss the complaint by Golloway. On March 21, 2017, Judge Coody recommended that the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint be granted and that the case be dismissed with prejudice. Golloway’s breach of contract claims against Auburn were barred due to sovereign immunity (as a state university). As to the defamation claim, the court found that “[c]oaches are fired all the time” and a statement that a coach is fired for an undisclosed “cause” is not defamatory. With respect to the fraud claims, the court found that Golloway could not demonstrate that he “reasonably relied” on any alleged representations by Jacobs. The contract specifically provided a term of five years. Any assertion that the contract would be for “as long as he liked” was not reasonable in the face of the written contract. On the tortious interference claim, the court found that a plaintiff must establish that employees acted outside the scope of their authority to be personally liable. The court held that Golloway failed to allege that any of the defendants were acting outside of their authority as employees.
On April 4, 2017, Golloway filed an objection to the recommendation issued by Judge Coody, requesting that the court dismiss the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. In the objection, Golloway asserts that (1) the breach of contract claims against Auburn were for a liquidated, certain amount under a contract with the state, and thus an exception from sovereign immunity; (2) the statements by Jacobs to the press were harmful to his professional reputation, and were therefore defamatory by definition; (3) a jury should decide whether Golloway reasonably relied on the oral representations by the school and Jacobs; and (4) the individuals were acting outside the course and scope of their employment by “setting up” Golloway and maliciously lying in order to cause his termination.
With the case being dismissed with prejudice, the objection to the recommendation of Judge Coody may be the last chance for Golloway.