We all make mistakes, even judges.
That seemed to be the take when Suffolk County (Mass.) Superior Court Justice Thomas E. Connolly announced last week that he had changed his mind and that former Northeastern University football coach Don Brown could accept a similar position at the University of Massachusetts.
On March 11, Judge Connolly had granted a preliminary injunction, preventing Brown from taking the UMass job. Northeastern University v. Donald A. Brown, Jr. et al., 2004-0827-F, S. Ct. Mass. (Suffolk), 3/11/04. The controversy over Brown’s departure had been stoked by recently renegotiated written and verbal agreements with Northeastern that not only sweetened the existing terms of his contract, but sought to prevent him from pursuing other employment opportunities. Another exacerbating factor was that David O’Brien had denied UMASS AD John McCuthcheon permission to interview Brown, a contention UMASS has denied.
That was not lost on Judge Connolly, who wrote “there is no question that Brown willfully and intentionally breached his contract with Northeastern. He signed his contract and straight-out violated it. He gave his word to Northeastern and the student-athletes that he was not leaving Northeastern when, in fact, within a day, he was cleaning out his room to move to UMass.
“There also appears to be no question that UMass actively induced the breach when it had been told of the restrictions on Brown talking to other potential football employers and of his existing long-term contract with Northeastern.” Employees at UMass “have clearly violated the law, but above all else have brought great shame on themselves and the university.”
The court also found requisite “irreparable harm” in that “Brown knows the program, the plays, and the set procedures used at Northeastern, and he will be able to use his knowledge of the same against Northeastern.”
The same day as the ruling, Northeastern AD O’Brien lauded the decision in a press release, calling it “a win for the ethical integrity of intercollegiate athletics. There was a clear breach of contract and we are pleased that the court recognized that. We felt it was necessary to make a statement about Northeastern’s commitment to ethical practices, and we are pleased that the court saw things our way.”
In presenting its argument for the injunction, Northeastern had highlighted New England Patriots Football Club, Inc. v. University of Colorado, 592 F.2d 1196, 1198 n. 3 (1st Cir. 1979), a case where the court found that Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks breached his contract to become the football coach for Colorado.
One observer, who asked not to be identified, told SLA that Northeastern “is smarting from being raided constantly by other schools, especially UMass.”
Within days after Judge Connolly’s ruling, Brown hired A. Bernard Guekguezian of the law firm Adler, Cohen, Harvey, Wakeman & Guekguezian to represent him. The attorney went on the record as saying his first step would be “to file a petition to a single judge of the appellate court to dissolve or modify the injunction.”
Guekguezian, who called Northeastern’s action “punitive,” told the Boston Globe that “there is a liquidated damages clause in the contract that was bargained for by AD O’Brien and Coach Brown through extensive negotiations whereby if Coach Brown chose to take an opportunity elsewhere before his contract term was over, he would pay Northeastern $25,000.”
Apparently, that argument, or another, was persuasive. On April 7, Judge Connolly lifted the injunction.
“The judge simply admitted later that he erred in the original ruling and corrected that error,” said the observer. “Paying the buyout fulfilled the termination requirements of the contract.”