While the 2019-20 NBA season remains suspended due to the coronavirus disease pandemic, litigation involving NBA players continues. This is true for New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, a budding superstar and contender for the 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year Award. The 19-year-old has the unique distinction of being both a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit and a defendant in a state lawsuit. Both cases involve the same opponent: Williamson’s former marketing representative, Prime Sports Marketing president Gina Ford.
As explained below, Williamson suffered a procedural setback in his multi-court litigation on Wednesday. It is one that might make him more inclined to offer favorable settlement terms to Ford.
The Williamson-Ford litigation centers on one core issue: The legality of Williamson firing Ford as his representative in endorsement 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 his marketing representative. To be clear, the contract did not make Ford—who has negotiated contracts for Usain Bolt and Kevin Durant’s mother, Wanda Durant—his agent for signing with an NBA team. It concerned endorsements and related opportunities. For about five weeks thereafter, Ford negotiated on Williamson’s behalf with such companies 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 got a head start on pending litigation by suing Ford first. He filed a complaint against her last June in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Williamson maintains that the contract he signed with Prime Sports was illegal and thereby unenforceable from the start. Specifically, he argues that it violates North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA). This law requires that representatives of college athletes warn, in writing, about the NCAA eligibility impact on the player by signing a contract. The Williamson-Prime Sports contract clearly omitted such a warning, a fact that strengthens Williamson’s case.
In her defense, Ford asserts that Williamson was arguably no longer a college athlete on April 20, 2019 and thus was no longer protected by the UAAA. Williamson had declared for the 2019 NBA draft on April 15, 2019. While he still had about six weeks to withdraw his NBA draft eligibility, that possibility seemed remote. He was the presumptive No. 1 pick and, by all accounts, determined to enter the NBA at that time and not return to Duke for a sophomore season. Stated differently, Williamson forfeiting his NCAA eligibility by signing with Prime Sports arguably forfeited a meaningless right.
Ford responded to Williamson suing her by suing him and a group from CAA for more than $100 million in Miami-Dade County Circuit. Ford maintains that Williamson and his co-defendants engaged in fraud and bad faith, and also violated the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act. As Ford tells it, Williamson unlawfully terminated his contract with Prime Sports, costing her many millions of dollars in potential endorsement deals.
She also contends that Williamson and his representatives misappropriated a strategic branding plan that she had designed specifically for him. Ford insists that she shared the plan with Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, and the Williamson camp continued to use the plan after dumping Ford. Williamson categorically denies these claims and maintains that Ford never legally represented him since the contract he signed with Prime Sports violated the UAAA.
Williamson and Ford are both represented by seasoned and accomplished attorneys. Jeffrey Klein of Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Robert Harrington and Fitz Barringer of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson are litigating for Williamson. Ford has retained Stephen Drummond of Drummond & Squillace and Willie Gary and Larry Strauss of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary.
On Wednesday, Ford’s attorneys received good news. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Webster denied Williamson’s motion to schedule a conference for pretrial discovery. Williamson’s attorneys had petitioned for pretrial discovery to commence in his case against Ford. They argued that it was in the interest of “judicial economy”, meaning efficiency in the operations of the judicial system, for discovery in the federal case to begin and be coordinated with discovery in the state case.
Williamson’s attorneys would like to use the federal pretrial discovery process to force Ford to answer questions under oath and compel her to turn over sensitive documents, potentially including emails and texts. This is hardly an unusual or unexpected objective: Ford would like to use the pretrial discovery process against Williamson and CAA. However, the longer the litigation drags on, arguably the better for Ford, particularly if her case in Florida advances and she can compel Williamson to answer questions under oath and turn over documents.
Judge Webster concluded it would be premature to order discovery or have the attorneys confer to discuss how discovery would commence. Ford’s attorneys, Judge Webster observed, have yet to answer Williamson’s complaint. Indeed, the case has moved slowly due in part to an amended complaint and extended filing dates. The judge also took notice of the fact that the court has not yet scheduled an initial pretrial conference. In addition, the case is complicated by Ford’s attorneys insisting that a federal court in North Carolina lacks jurisdiction to hear the matter.
Wednesday’s ruling is hardly fatal to Williamson’s lawsuit. The merits of the case have not yet been evaluated. There are many steps ahead before either side could be declared the litigation’s victor. More than anything, Wednesday’s ruling extends the clock.
But timing arguably matters more to Williamson than to Ford. If Williamson hoped to extract a favorable settlement from Ford by obtaining coordinated discovery in federal court, that hope won’t be a reality anytime soon. The litigation seems poised to last well into 2020, if not beyond, and could eventually require Williamson to comply with discovery requests. With Williamson focused on his NBA career and living up to his lucrative endorsement deals—including one with Jordan Brand—he might be more inclined to offer Ford an amount of money that resolves the litigation once and for all.