0

Judge rules against Leach in termination lawsuit

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

LUBBOCK, Texas -- A Texas appeals court threw out former coach Mike Leach's breach of contract claim against Texas Tech on Friday, though it said he could still pursue non-monetary claims against the school over his controversial 2009 firing.

Leach did not immediately respond to a text message and couldn't be reached by phone.

"We won," Texas Tech attorney Dicky Grigg said. "The court has held that he has no monetary claims against the school."

University attorneys had argued that Leach could not sue the school because Texas Tech is a state entity with sovereign immunity, meaning it can only be sued with permission from the state Legislature or a waiver based on a defendant's conduct.

A trial court ruling went against the school, but the latest decision from the 7th Court of Appeals upheld Texas Tech's assertion of immunity.

Leach's attorney, Paul Dobrowski, said he plans to appeal the issue to the Texas Supreme Court. He said the ruling noted that the state's highest court "is unclear regarding waiver of sovereign immunity" through conduct.

"In essence, the doctrine permits state institutions such as Texas Tech to deny a man's written contractual rights and steal his hard-earned labor while paying nothing," Dobrowski said. "That is not fair and not what Texas and its citizens stand for."

The school fired Leach on Dec. 30, 2009, two days after suspending him amid allegations he mistreated a player with a concussion. Leach has denied mistreating Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James, and has said he suspects an $800,000 bonus he was due Dec. 31 was the reason he was fired.

The appeals court ruling allows Leach to try to show Texas Tech's reasons for firing him were wrong, but without monetary relief.

The appeals court also reinstated one of Leach's claims. The two sides will return to court to determine whether Texas Tech's allegations were "proper" against Leach in the James situation, Dobrowski said.

"We're asking them to declare that they were not" proper, he said. "Mike's going to be thrilled that he has a chance to clear his name."

The ruling gives state District Judge William C. Sowder, the trial court judge in the case, jurisdiction to determine if Leach received his due process, Grigg said.

"We're confident he did receive due process," he said. "And no matter what, he's not entitled to any monetary claims."

Attorneys on both sides have swapped accusations for months over the firing, with the highly successful coach claiming among other things that school leaders were persuaded in part to fire him by Craig James. His attorney has said he can't get a job because of the firing and at one point accused Texas Tech of smearing Leach by releasing video footage of the coach in the locker room using profane language.

When the two sides head back to court, Dobrowski said he will present evidence that shows Leach should not have been fired for cause because the school didn't have grounds to do so. He said Leach did not mistreat Adam James and was not insubordinate to administrators during the school's investigation.

In Friday's ruling, the three-judge panel wrote that Leach needed "good faith belief" that his lawsuit constituted making a report to an appropriate law enforcement authority, a requirement of the Texas Whistleblower Act.

Leach, who has a law degree, claimed that the university violated the whistleblower act by firing him after he filed his lawsuit.

The appeals court disagreed and suggested the argument shouldn't have been made.

Leach, the judges wrote, had the "savvy and intelligence" to field a Division I football team and keep current with NCAA rules along with several attorneys so he wasn't "left alone to sojourn" through a legal maze.

"Given this, we arrive at but one conclusion," the panel said. "In short, no evidence exists enabling us to conclude that Leach satisfied the objective prong of a good faith belief."

In a separate case, Leach has also sued ESPN Inc. and a public relations firm, accusing them of libel and slander after he was fired. The lawsuit seeks undisclosed damages and retractions from ESPN and the PR firm.