ACC vs. University of Maryland take to N.C. court

ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2013 

— The N.C. Court of Appeals is not the typical court that comes to mind when the ACC and University of Maryland are listed on the calendar.

But that’s where an unusual skirmish played out Thursday.

The teams were made up of lawyers tossing around legal terms and tenets in a challenge about millions of dollars.

At the core of the legal clash is a $52 million exit fee the ACC contends Maryland owes as it departs for the Big Ten. Maryland argues the fee is excessive and was arrived at outside the bounds of conference rules, and has refused to pay.

The ACC contends the fee was approved by 10 of the 12 conference members – Maryland and Florida State University opposed setting a departure fee at nearly three times the conference’s operating budget – and has withheld more than a fifth of the sum from disbursements owed to Maryland.

The arguments on Thursday before three N.C. appeals court judges – Chris Dillion, Sam Ervin IV and R.N. Hunter Jr. – were about whether the legal contest would be in North Carolina or Maryland.

ACC attorneys contend North Carolina, the birthplace of the 60-year-old conference, is the proper place for sorting out what they describe as a “contract dispute.”

The Maryland Board of Regents has asked for the case to be dismissed in North Carolina with hopes that a home crowd in the Maryland courts will settle the spat.

A Maryland judge put the lawsuit there on hold earlier this summer until the North Carolina courts rule on the proper venue.

Within the confines of case law and legal terms, two lawyers from Greensboro, J. Alexander Barrett, the attorney representing Maryland, and Alan Duncan, the attorney representing the ACC, faced off Thursday morning in the stately court of appeals courtroom.

“Even if this case were alleged to have been a breach of contract action by the ACC and even if they had made some allegation that they had suffered some damages neither of which is the case in this case, a breach of actual contract claim can only be brought in the court of Maryland,” Barrett argued.

Duncan argued the contract the ACC contends was breached was not solely a failure to pay the departure fee. He said the breached contract was rooted in the agreement negotiated some six decades ago when Maryland became one of the founding members of the ACC.

“The contract is the constitution of the ACC which had been entered into by parties 60 years before including Maryland in the state of North Carolina,” Duncan said.

It could take weeks or months for the N.C. Court of Appeals to rule on whether North Carolina is the proper venue for the lawsuit or whether it should be dismissed here and pursued in Maryland.

The judges asked questions at the hour-long hearing without revealing how they might rule.

The case could be of great interest to other colleges and universities as conference shopping continues.

The ACC has argued that Maryland’s departure weakened the conference financially and created an image of instability that could hamper negotiations for lucrative TV deals.

The departure fee levied by the ACC is believed to be the largest and if upheld could make schools reconsider a conference change.

But since 2012, when Maryland revealed plans to leave for the Big Ten in July 2014, the ACC has changed its policies to reflect retention provisions popular in other conferences.

This past April, ACC Commissioner John Swofford persuaded the conference’s members – including new additions Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville – to give the conference media rights until 2027.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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