As explained below, Williamson suffered procedural setback in his litigation in several courts on Wednesday. This is a situation which could make him more inclined to offer favorable settlement terms to Ford.
The Williamson-Ford litigation centers on a fundamental issue: the legality of the dismissal of Williamson Ford as his representative in the approval negotiations.
While still a freshman at Duke University on April 20, 2019, Williamson signed a five-year contract for Prime Sports (Ford) to serve as a marketing representative. To be clear, the contract did not make Ford – who negotiated contracts for Usain Bolt and Kevin Durant’s mother, Wanda Durant – his agent to sign with an NBA team. It concerned endorsements and related opportunities. For about five weeks thereafter, Ford negotiated on behalf of Williamson with companies such as Puma, Activision Publishing, EA Sports, Burger King, Mercedes Benz, T-Mobile and Biosteel. Towards the end of May, Williamson severed ties with Ford and retained CAA to represent him for both employment and endorsement contracts.
Williamson took a step ahead of ongoing litigation by sue Ford first. He filed a lawsuit against her last June with the US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Williamson maintains that the contract he signed with Prime Sports was illegal and therefore unenforceable from the start. Specifically, he argues that this violates the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA). This law requires college athlete representatives to warn in writing about the impact of NCAA eligibility on the player by signing a contract. The Williamson-Prime Sports contract clearly omitted such a warning, which reinforces the case of Williamson.
In his defense, Ford claims that Williamson was no longer a university athlete on April 20, 2019 and was therefore no longer protected by the AAAA. Williamson declared himself for the 2019 NBA Draft on April 15, 2019. While he still had about six weeks to withdraw his eligibility for the NBA Draft, that possibility seemed distant. He was the presumed No. 1 pick and, by all accounts, determined to enter the NBA at the time and not return to Duke for a second season. In other words, Williamson lost his eligibility to the NCAA by signing with Prime Sports probably lost a meaningless right.
Ford responded to Williamson’s lawsuit by suing him and a CAA group for more than $ 100 million in the Miami-Dade County circuit. Ford contends that Williamson and his co-defendants engaged in fraud and bad faith and also violated the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act. As Ford recounts, Williamson illegally terminated his contract with Prime Sports, costing him millions of dollars in potential support agreements.
She also claims that Williamson and his representatives hijacked a strategic branding plan that she had designed specifically for him. Ford insists that it shared the plan with Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, and Williamson’s camp continued to use the plan after throwing Ford away. Williamson categorically denies these allegations and maintains that Ford has never represented him legally since the contract he signed with Prime Sports violated the UAAA.
Williamson and Ford are both represented by experienced and accomplished lawyers. Jeffrey Klein of Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Robert Harrington and Fitz Barringer of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson argue for Williamson. Ford selected Stephen Drummond from Drummond & Squillace and Willie Gary and Larry Strauss from Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary.
Ford lawyers received good news on Wednesday. US investigative judge Joe Webster denied Williamson’s request to hold a conference for a preliminary inquiry. Williamson’s lawyers had requested that pre-trial discovery begin in his case against Ford. They argued that it was in the interest of “the judicial economy”, that is, the efficiency of the operations of the justice system, that the discovery in the federal case begin and be coordinated with the discovery in the case of the state.
Williamson’s lawyers would like to use the federal preliminary discovery process to force Ford to answer questions under oath and force it to hand over sensitive documents, including potentially emails and texts. This is hardly an unusual or unexpected goal: Ford would like to use the preliminary discovery process against Williamson and CAA. However, the longer the litigation goes on, presumably better for Ford, especially if her Florida case goes ahead and she can force Williamson to answer questions under oath and hand over documents.
Webster J. concluded that it would be premature to order the discovery or to ask the lawyers to discuss how the discovery would begin. Ford’s lawyers, Justice Webster observed, have yet to respond to Williamson’s complaint. Indeed, the business has evolved slowly due in part to a amended complaint and extended filing dates. The judge also noted that the court has not yet scheduled a first pre-trial conference. In addition, the case is complicated by Ford’s lawyers who insisted that a federal court in North Carolina has no jurisdiction to hear the case.
Wednesday’s ruling was hardly fatal at the Williamson trial. The merits of the case have not yet been assessed. There are still many stages to go before one of the parties can be declared the winner of the dispute. More than anything, Wednesday’s decision extends the clock.
But timing probably matters more to Williamson than to Ford. If Williamson hoped to get a favorable settlement from Ford by getting a coordinated discovery in federal court, that hope will not be a reality anytime soon. The litigation appears to be on the verge of 2020, if not beyond, and could eventually force Williamson to comply with the discovery requests. With Williamson focused on his NBA career and living up to his lucrative sponsorship deals … including one with Jordan Brand – he might be more inclined to offer Ford a sum of money that would resolve the dispute once and for all.