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Breaking down the lawsuits of former Duke men's basketball star Zion Williamson

Williamson's legal troubles have been the talk of the offseason thus far.
Williamson's legal troubles have been the talk of the offseason thus far.

The lawsuits between Zion Williamson and his former marketing agency Prime Sports have dominated the offseason headlines over the past few months. The Chronicle spoke to attorney and legal analyst Daniel Wallach, who's been following and reporting on the lawsuits closely, to break down everything that's been going on.


How the lawsuits originated

The dispute between Williamson and Prime Sports began on May 31, 2019, when the former Duke star fired his then-marketing agency after signing with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) the day prior. 

Prime Sports and its president, Gina Ford, then allegedly threatened CAA and Williamson with a lawsuit, noting that their own contract with the future No. 1 pick stated that it could not be terminated for any reason within the first five years.

On June 13, 2019, Williamson filed the first actual lawsuit in North Carolina federal court in order to, according to CNN, "obtain a ruling that declares his contract [with Prime Sports] null and void." The lawsuit claims that Williamson was lawful in terminating his contact with Prime Sports due to the Uniform Athlete Agents Act (UAAA), a law in North Carolina that is designed to protect student-athletes in their negotiations with agents.

The UAAA requires that an agent be registered as an "athlete-agent" in North Carolina and that the contract include specific language and boldface notices meant to protect the student-athlete. Ford and her contract abided by neither of these obligations.

Nevertheless, Ford filed a breach of contract countersuit eight days later in a Miami-Dade County, Fla., state court, seeking $100 million in compensatory and punitive damages from both Williamson and representatives of CAA. 

But what legal basis did Ford have for this countersuit? And why did she file it in Florida rather than respond to Williamson's initial lawsuit in North Carolina?

"Williamson wanted to litigate this case in North Carolina where he could seek the protection of the [UAAA]. That venue was favorable to him for that particular reason," Wallach told The Chronicle. "Ford chose to sue in Florida for the opposite reason. She wanted to avoid the application of [the UAAA]. And her lawsuit in Florida is predicated on a contract provision in the marketing agreement that she has with Williamson. That marketing agreement specifies that Florida law will control. So on the strength of that choice of law provision, Gina Ford sued Williamson in state court in Miami, even though she had the option to join in the North Carolina lawsuit."

For nearly a year, these two cases acted as dueling lawsuits. Ford's case took a hit, however, when her motion to dismiss the North Carolina lawsuit was denied April 24, 2020, making it likely that the UAAA would come into play to defend Williamson.

At this point, the case for both Williamson and Ford relied on two important questions related to the UAAA, according to Wallach:

  1. Did Gina Ford have any improper contact with Williamson and/or his family while the Blue Devil forward was a student-athlete?
  2. Was Williamson even a student-athlete?

This is when Ford's discovery requests—the requests for admission that Williamson and/or his family received improper benefits—came into the picture.


What is the role of Ford's discovery requests?

May 10 is when most college basketball fans began to follow these lawsuits closely. That was the date Ford filed her requests in the Florida state court for Williamson to respond to—i.e. answer "yes" or "no" under oath—a number of impermissible benefit allegations.

But how are these allegations related to the lawsuit? 

"They call into question Williamson's status as a student-athlete," Wallach said. "Because [for Williamson] to invalidate the contract under the UAAA, he needs to be a student-athlete. So [Ford's] theory is that if she can establish that Williamson received improper economic benefits to attend Duke, then his entire career at Duke was a fraud from the get go and he was never eligible to be a student-athlete. So she tried to wipe the slate clean and unravel his Duke collegiate basketball career by nullifying his status of student-athlete through the violation of NCAA rules."

Even more interesting was the report that Ford and her attorneys weren't planning on limiting themselves to Williamson with regard to depositions. In response to a direct question of whether they were likely to try and depose Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, an attorney on Ford's behalf told Sports Illustrated that they were "leaving no stones unturned."


The temporary stay in Florida

Another reason Ford filed her countersuit in Florida state court is because of the relatively fewer obstacles to filing discovery requests in state court rather than federal court. Thus, even though her motion to dismiss the North Carolina lawsuit was denied, she could still attempt to force Williamson to respond to her requests for admission rather quickly in Florida.

Immediately after the requests for admission were filed, Williamson and his attorneys motioned for a "stay" of the Florida case, meaning a postponement of the lawsuit in Florida. The motion was initially denied by the Florida state judge. But a temporary stay was later granted June 4 upon appeal based on the notion that the North Carolina lawsuit predated the Florida one and included the same parties and claims. Williamson's attorneys used the argument that "a prior pending action involving the same parties and claims should have deference over later filed state court action," according to Wallach.

While the stay is technically a temporary one, Wallach said he expects that it "is going to become a much longer one" and that it "will in turn [push] the parties to conduct their discovery in the North Carolina federal court."


'We will likely never see discovery on the issue of whether Williamson received improper benefits to attend Duke'

In his own opinion, Wallach is doubtful that Williamson will ever have to respond to Ford's requests for admission and if he does it certainly won't be anytime soon.

For one, Wallach notes that federal court rules force both parties to comply with a multitude of meetings and schedules before any discovery can take place in North Carolina. But he says that "right now, none of that has occurred" and that the earliest any depositions could possibly occur would be in late July.

That's not the only reason Ford's proposed requests, and entire case, are in jeopardy, though.

Currently, the two sides are waiting on a decision regarding a motion for partial judgement that Williamson has already filed that could grant him outright victory in his lawsuit as soon as the end of June, according to Wallach. The motion is based on texts from Williamson's stepmother's phone that seem to show Ford engaging in improper contact with the family in January 2019, well before Williamson had declared for the 2019 NBA Draft, which was another complication of the original lawsuit

Even if that motion isn't granted, Wallach challenges the relevancy of her discovery requests in general, relevancy that will have to be proven before any questions are asked.

"Williamson is going to take the position that it's irrelevant because he's already established the fact that he's a student-athlete because he participated in the games at Duke University," Wallach said. "[The UAAA] defines student-athlete in one of three ways, any of which would qualify you for student-athlete status. And one of those alternatives would be simply engaging in intercollegiate games, independent of any eligibility to play college basketball. So his status as a student-athlete has actually become cemented the moment he participated in those games. So he's going to file a motion for protective order to block any inquiry into his decision to attend Duke, if anything motivated that.

"And I think right now, all the facts that have been reduced in the case, the evidence that has been publicly filed, leaves Williamson holding a very strong hand legally because he has [these] two very important facts in his favor..... We will likely never see discovery on the issue of whether Williamson received improper benefits to attend Duke."

That's not all.

Wallach also notes two more reasons he believes the facts favor Williamson in this case: the foundation of the UAAA as well as the inconsistency in Ford's positions.

"[The UAAA] is designed to safeguard against precisely this kind of situation," Wallach said. "That law is designed to protect student-athletes, not athlete-agents, and it's pretty unforgiving when there was a technical violation, when you've engaged in any of the prohibited forms of conduct. If you're an agent that hasn't registered and you meet with the player, you try to solicit the player, the contract will be null and void under North Carolina law. It's straight away in the statute. So that's a statute that doesn't treat players and agents on equal terms.

"From a fourth factor, it comes across as somewhat inconsistent and maybe even unseemly for Gina Ford to on the one hand try to nullify and negate Zion Williamson's entire career at Duke while on the other hand asking for over $100 million in damages predicated on his value, which stems from his accomplishments at Duke. Her complaint in Miami and her counterclaims in North Carolina federal court are replete with allegations and references to his storied career at Duke University. So there's a principle in the law known as estoppel—you're basically taking two inconsistent positions."


If Williamson is innocent, why wouldn't he just answer the discovery requests?

Many critics, especially on Twitter, are quick to ask why Williamson is even trying to prevent depositions regarding Ford's discovery requests. Why wouldn't a supposedly innocent person be happy to respond to the allegations? But as Wallach explains, that's simply not how law practice works.

"The burden is on the proponent to establish the relevance of a particular line of questioning or information," Wallach said. "You can't just ask anybody any question and sort of poke your nose in all their personal aspects of their life.... If it doesn't rise to the relevance bar, no attorney in his right mind should ever allow clients to respond to questions that are outside the bounds of proper discovery.

"It would be bordering on malpractice for a lawyer to allow a client to answer questions that are so beyond the permissible scope of discovery that could end up having harmful consequences and they have no bearing on the lawsuit. Federal court discovery isn't a fishing expedition. There are requirements that parties have to satisfy and the key requirement is that the information and discovery you seek is relevant. The burden is on Gina to demonstrate that, not on Zion to negate it."

Wallach also acknowledges the notion that college basketball fandom could also be playing a factor in the public wanting Williamson to answer these likely unnecessary requests for admission.

"Certainly there are factions of fans across the country that would love to see Duke get sanctioned or Coach K's reputation harmed," Wallach said. "But that kind of wishful thinking shouldn't replace legal analysis into why something rises to the level of being relevant. This is not a popularity contest. This is not a game show. This is not sports talk radio. These are courts of law."

 

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