Attorney General Ashley Moody Jumps into FSU-ACC Dispute

TALLAHASSEE — Attorney General Ashley Moody signaled her support for Florida State University’s appeal of a North Carolina judge’s decision to allow a lawsuit filed against the school by the Atlantic Coast Conference to proceed — and is asking her counterparts in six states to join her efforts.

Florida State and the ACC are involved in a big-money legal battle centered on media rights, with court fights in North Carolina and Tallahassee as the school considers leaving the conference. With major conference realignments in the works, challenges are being closely watched by college athletics throughout the country.

FSU filed its lawsuit Dec. 22 in Leon County challenging what it alleges as an excess of $500 million in penalties if it wants to extricate itself from the conference. But the day before the Leon County case was filed, the conference filed a lawsuit in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina against FSU about many of the same issues.

Clemson University filed a lawsuit similar to Florida State’s in South Carolina last month.

Moody last week sent a letter to attorneys general in California, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia — home to other ACC schools — outlining a ruling by Louis Bledsoe, chief business court judge in Mecklenburg County, that denied Florida State’s motion to stay the lawsuit filed by the ACC.

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Bledsoe’s April 4 ruling in part found that Florida State “waived” its sovereign immunity from the ACC’s lawsuit because the school for decades participated in the conference’s activities, which are “commercial, rather than governmental, in nature.” Florida State said it intends to appeal the ruling.

Moody blasted Bledsoe’s ruling and indicated the state also may get involved in the appeal.

“The North Carolina court, which has ruled it has the power to throw out the window 50 years of precedent guaranteeing sovereign immunity to states, is extraordinarily concerning and should be to every state that has a school in the ACC. We continue to evaluate whether and the extent of action we will take in the North Carolina case, as well as the ACC’s refusal to provide the media contracts that are public records it is wrongfully withholding,” Moody said in a statement provided to The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

Moody’s letter to her counterparts noted that only Florida State and Clemson are challenging the hefty exit fees and long-term grant of rights agreements with the conference. Other schools in the conference agreed to the ACC’s lawsuit, Moody wrote on April 17. She warned about the “potential breadth and impact” of the sovereign-immunity issue.

“If the history of college football realignment has taught us anything at this point, it is that there will be some future realignment down the road. The universities that have ratified such an expansive view of the waiver of sovereign immunity in the ACC Lawsuit may find that the sword that they now wield will be turned on them. More than that, those schools may find that their future decisions and actions are now subject to resolution in some other state than where they are located based on their position in this suit,” Moody wrote.

In an interview with the News Service on Tuesday, Moody said she didn’t think the other ACC schools “thought through the sovereign-immunity issue” and pledged to back Florida State in its battle against the conference.

“It’s so important that we fight for the sovereign immunity of our state and of our organizations and entities within it, and I will do that as the attorney general,” she said.

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Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper on Monday heard arguments in the Florida lawsuit before telling Florida State that the school needs to amend its legal challenge.

Much of Monday’s arguments centered on the issue of “personal jurisdiction,” or whether the lawsuit could be brought against the conference in Florida. The ACC argued that FSU failed to flesh out the issue in its legal complaint.

Cooper agreed, but said FSU could have more time to address the issue.

“I’m not ruling against FSU. I’m not ruling they have no case. I’m not ruling against the ACC. I’m not ruling in favor of the ACC. I’m not ruling that its case is better than FSU’s case. What I am ruling is that in a case that’s worth, I’m told, up to half a billion dollars, on personal jurisdiction, we need a more specific and clearly stated statement of personal jurisdiction,” Cooper said.

The judge gave FSU 10 days to file an amended complaint.

Lawyers for the ACC had asked Cooper to dismiss the case, arguing that the lawsuit amounted to a “contract dispute” between the school and the conference.

Moody’s letter to the six attorneys general in states with public universities that are members of the ACC acknowledged that “conference alignment has become contentious and is highly charged.” She asked her counterparts to “engage” with universities in their states and said that “Florida is considering taking action” in Florida State’s appeal of the North Carolina ruling. She also asked the attorneys general to reach out to her office if they are “interested in becoming involved” in the state’s efforts.

“Each of our states has some university that will likely be significantly affected from the shakeout of the latest round of consolidation, and I recognize and appreciate that the fans for each school are extremely passionate. But, positions such as the waiver of sovereign immunity position being advanced by the ACC are detrimental to all of our states,” she added.

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