Supreme court throws out million-dollar award over Gophers job

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2012 - 7:03 AM

Coach candidate not entitled to protection under law, justices say. The ruling vacates the jury award to Jimmy Williams, saying the U owed no duty of care.

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Jimmy Williams

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The Minnesota Supreme Court threw out a $1 million jury award to would-be University of Minnesota assistant men's basketball coach Jimmy Williams over a rescinded job offer, reasoning that Williams was not entitled to protection under the law and should have known that head coach Tubby Smith was not the final authority over his failed hiring.

The high court's 3-2 ruling Wednesday for now ends 5 1/2 years of litigation, and vindicates the U and Smith, a university attorney said.

"Coach feels vindicated that his reputation for honesty has been restored by the court," said U General Counsel Mark Rotenberg. "He never snookered Williams into leaving his job."

The case began when Williams claimed that Smith misrepresented his authority in 2007 by offering an assistant coaching position, leading Williams to quit his similar job at Oklahoma State.

Gophers Athletic Director Joel Maturi later nixed the offer, after he learned of NCAA infractions 20 years ago during Williams' first stint with the U.

Williams was left unemployed. In 2010, a Hennepin County jury awarded him $1 million, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals last year.

A dejected Williams on Wednesday called the ruling "intellectually dishonest." His attorney, Donald Chance Mark Jr., said they're still considering their few remaining legal options, which could include a petition for rehearing by the Supreme Court.

"We simply note for now that the university should be neither proud of nor emboldened by this decision relieving it of the legal consequences for its actions." Mark said in a statement. "It is hoped this experience will prompt the university to instead do what's right and provide truthful and accurate information to prospective employees in the future."

No duty of care

In its reversal, the court reasoned that Williams is not entitled to protection from negligent misrepresentation because their interaction "does not involve a professional, fiduciary or other special legal relationship," such as between attorney and client.

Under the law, Justice Christopher Dietzen wrote, the duty of care necessary for legal action does not apply to "sophisticated businesspeople, both watching out for their individual interests while negotiating at arm's length."

Further, Dietzen noted, Williams should have known that Smith was not the final hiring authority. In addition, Smith told Williams that Maturi had final say in the decision before Williams quit his job.

"Williams never asked whether Smith had the authority to hire; he simply assumed that authority existed," Dietzen wrote. "We have never held that the plaintiff's mistaken assumption can impose a duty."

William disputes that claim, saying Smith didn't tell him about Maturi's veto power until two days after he quit his job with the Cowboys.

In her dissent, Justice Helen Meyer said that as a government employee, Tubby Smith was responsible for providing accurate information -- in this case, that he was not the final hiring authority.

"Recognizing a duty of care in this case would serve the public policy of promoting accuracy when a government official knows that others will act in reliance on the official's representations of fact," she wrote.

Acting Justice Waldemar Senyk joined Meyer in her dissent.

Four justices removed themselves from hearing or deciding the case because of their ties to the U, and two acting justices were appointed to hear the case.

The court unanimously rejected the U's argument that the district court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.

Williams struggled for a while after quitting Oklahoma State and losing out on the job for the Gophers but in the past year was hired as an assistant for the Memphis Tigers.

"I know the truth and I know Tubby Smith knows the truth and this was unfair," Williams said.

Justice: U mishandled

Although the majority sided with the university, Dietzen called the U's dealings with Williams "unfair and disappointing."

"We do not condone their conduct," Dietzen wrote.

University of St. Thomas Law School professor Susan Stabile called the ruling expected under the law, particularly given Williams' experience.

"He's been coaching for many years. He knows full well it's the U doing the hiring and not the coach," she said. "Someone has to have actual or current authority before you can hold them liable for their statements."

Precedent feared

Although the U had a $1 million insurance policy that would have covered Williams' payout, Rotenberg said the case was about avoiding a dangerous precedent.

If Williams' legal arguments held true, he said, "millions of individuals and businesses in Minnesota would be suing one another in the context of job interviews, job applications and job discussions."

He said the U never misled Williams, saying he believes Williams' "mistaken assumption" was just that when he believed that Smith was the final hiring authority.

"But a mistaken assumption does not justify five years of litigation against the university," Rotenberg said.

Williams' attorney declined to respond at length. "The jury told us what the truth was," Mark said.

Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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