A Judge refuses to halt the FSU vs. ACC case

March 2023 Doak Campbell Stadium, home of Florida State University Football - FSU
FSU's football stadium. Tallahassee, FL. By CRobertson via iStock for WMNF News

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge Tuesday refused to put on hold a lawsuit filed by Florida State University against the Atlantic Coast Conference, as a big-money battle between the university and its longtime conference continues to play out in two states.

After an all-day hearing, Circuit Judge John Cooper denied a request by the ACC for a stay of the lawsuit. Cooper’s decision came five days after a Mecklenburg County, N.C., judge rejected a request by FSU to dismiss — or put on hold — a separate lawsuit filed by the conference against the university.

The two rulings leave a tangle of legal issues in the battle, which centers on media rights and could end with Florida State leaving the conference. The issues are being closely watched in college athletics, which is undergoing major conference realignments.

FSU filed its lawsuit Dec. 22 in Leon County challenging what it describes as more than $500 million in penalties if it wants to exit the conference. But the day before the Leon County case was filed, the conference filed a lawsuit in North Carolina against FSU about many of the same issues.

Attorneys for the ACC argued Tuesday that Cooper should issue a stay in the Leon County case, at least in part because the North Carolina lawsuit was filed first. The ACC is based in North Carolina.

But Cooper said the ACC had rushed to file the lawsuit in North Carolina after finding out that Florida State was on the verge of filing its case in Leon County. He called the ACC case “anticipatory litigation” that amounted to “forum shopping” — essentially trying to file a lawsuit in a friendlier legal venue.

Cooper said that took away a presumption that the North Carolina case should have priority. The judge said he was not deciding that “Florida State’s right it its allegations” in the overall lawsuit.

“I’m just saying the motion for a stay should be denied,” Cooper said.

But the ruling leaves the two cases moving on separate tracks. Louis Bledsoe, chief business court judge in Mecklenburg County, reached a different conclusion about venue when he denied Florida State’s motion to stay the lawsuit filed by the ACC.

Bledsoe wrote Thursday that the “ACC did not engage in improper conduct or ‘procedural fencing’ in filing this action in North Carolina. Accordingly, considering all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the filing of this action and the Florida action, the court concludes, in the exercise of its discretion, that the ACC’s choice of forum is entitled to deference on this record.”

Florida State on Tuesday filed a notice of appealing Bledsoe’s decision. The ACC also could appeal Cooper’s denial of a stay. Cooper has scheduled an April 22 hearing on a motion by the ACC to dismiss the Leon County case.

Florida State essentially contends the ACC has shortchanged its members through television contracts, with FSU widely viewed as wanting to move to a more lucrative conference such as the Big Ten or the Southeastern Conference.

If Florida State leaves the ACC, it would have to pay a $130 million to $140 million withdrawal fee, Jim Cooney, an attorney for the conference, said during Tuesday’s hearing.

But FSU alleges it also could lose hundreds of millions of dollars because it would be forced to forfeit media rights through 2036. The lawsuit makes a series of allegations, including that the potential penalties would be an “unreasonable restraint of trade” and would “violate Florida public policy and are unconscionable.”

“This is Florida’s money. This is Florida State’s team. This is Florida State’s media rights, and it’s for the next 12 years,” Peter Rush, an attorney for the university, said.

But Alan Lawson, a former Florida Supreme Court justice representing the ACC, said the university breached a contract by filing the lawsuit.

“By suing the Atlantic Coast Conference and challenging those documents, they violated the contract,” Lawson said. “So, when the Atlantic Coast Conference filed its action in North Carolina, it was an action to protect its rights under the contract.”

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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