How Florida State vs. ACC lawsuits could reach the Supreme Court

An attorney for the Atlantic Coast Conference had a word for the next stage of litigation between the ACC and Florida State.


As if a nine-figure legal fight that could reshape the entire college football landscape wasn’t wild enough, the initial rulings make it even wilder. That’s because judges have allowed dueling lawsuits about FSU’s future in the league to proceed in two separate courtrooms 400 miles apart. The sides have a hearing set for Monday in Leon County (where Florida State sued the ACC) and on May 2 in North Carolina (where the ACC sued Florida State).

If you’re wondering how this parallel litigation is going to play out, you’re not alone.

“I’m even scratching my head,” said Scott Jeeves, founder of the Tampa Bay-area based Jeeves Law Group. “I can’t give you a set answer.”

We can’t, either. But conversations with a handful of attorneys provide a few scenarios — including one that goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why this is rare and complicated

Federal courts resolve separate lawsuits routinely by combining them in one district.

Lawsuits filed in separate state courts (like these) are trickier. There’s no set way to consolidate them. They can’t move them to a neutral state. One judge isn’t necessarily bound by the opinion of another — if that opinion is even relevant.

“Different states can apply different laws, right?” said Robert Chapman, a commercial litigation partner at Tampa’s Brick Business Law.

The easiest solution is for one court to punt or postpone its case until the other is resolved. That’s what happened a decade ago when the University of Maryland and the ACC sued each other as the Terrapins left for the Big Ten. A Maryland judge paused the school’s complaint until the ACC’s suit in North Carolina finished to “avoid unnecessary expenses and the potential for inconsistent determinations of fact and law.”

That hasn’t happened in the FSU-ACC dispute. Texas A&M law professor James P. George understands why.

“If somebody comes to (your court) seeking relief, it’s your job — if they’ve got a claim — to give it to them,” George said.

Both judges have initially said the claims are worth hearing. And complex factors from sovereign immunity to state public records laws could keep them on separate, parallel tracks heading toward at least four end games.

Scenario 1: Consolidation

Having two cases doubles the number of filings, which are complicated by distinct laws. Perhaps both sides agree it’s easier to focus on one venue by dropping a case. Or they could split it; a Florida court decides the confidentiality of the ACC-ESPN contracts while the North Carolina court rules on the rest.

But this requires one party to surrender home-court advantage.

“It seems unlikely so far either side would be willing to bend,” said Kevin Paule, a commercial litigation attorney at Tampa’s Hill Ward Henderson.

Appeals could also lead to consolidation. Florida State is appealing its initial loss in Charlotte to the North Carolina Supreme Court. If that court sides with FSU, the ACC suit could end while the Florida case proceeds.

Scenario 2: The Supreme Court

Let’s say the North Carolina Supreme Court rejects FSU’s attempts to dismiss or pause the ACC’s case. Suppose the same thing plays out in Leon County. Judge John C. Cooper rejects the rest of the ACC’s initial arguments, and the league eventually appeals to the Florida Supreme Court.

If both home-court advantages hold, then the state supreme courts disagree. Disputes between states are decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I have a feeling this case is going to the Supreme Court, one way or another,” Chapman said.

In this hypothetical, the timeline gets stretched out for years.

Scenario 3: Race to judgment

Both parties have accused the other of a “race to the courthouse” to try to secure their preferred venue. Our third end game, then, would be a fitting conclusion.

“This is the perfect setting for the race to final judgment,” said Texas A&M’s George.

Fast-forward through all the motions and appeals until one court issues that final judgment. That’s when the Constitution’s full faith and credit clause comes into play. The clause, generally, means one state must abide by (give full faith and credit to) the final judgment of another state. If the ACC wins in North Carolina, that ruling applies in Florida — even if the FSU suit is ongoing.

Game over.

Attorneys could try to win this race by slowing down parts of the process, but the timeline depends more on each court’s schedule than procedural tactics.

Scenario 4: Settlement

The drama, stakes and circumstances of these dueling lawsuits could be a fascinating legal case study. Except James F. Haggerty expects it all to become moot.

“The whole notion that there will be two verdicts at some point or even one verdict is probably far-fetched,” said Haggerty, an attorney, author and communications consultant. “It’s likely something will bring the two parties together, and that tends to be money.”

FSU wants to be able to leave the ACC for $0 but said it could cost $700 million in fees/withheld TV money. Somewhere in the middle is a number that might work for everyone.

Until then, both sides have an incentive to keep their suits alive. The end of the North Carolina suit hurts the ACC’s negotiating power, just as the dismissal of the Leon County case weakens FSU’s hand.

Which means the future of FSU football and the next round of conference realignment will remain ongoing in two separate courthouses in two separate states under two sets of laws.


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