Federal judge rules Rodriguez lawsuit belongs in West Virginia court
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The lawsuit over a $4 million buyout clause in the contract of former West Virginia University football coach Rich Rodriguez will be heard in state court.
WVU is essentially an arm of state government, not an independent agency, and lawsuits involving state government can be heard only in the state court system, U.S. District Judge John P. Bailey said Monday.
He sent the case back to Monongalia County Circuit Court in Morgantown, where it was filed Dec. 27 after Rodriguez resigned to take the head coaching job at Michigan.
His abrupt departure ended a successful seven-year run with the Mountaineers, left the team without a head coach just weeks before the Fiesta Bowl and touched off a bitter, continuing public feud.
"The university obviously agrees with the decision of the court and has always felt that the proper place for this action was the Circuit Court of Monongalia County," said WVU attorney Jeff Wakefield. "We believe the Circuit Court will be very fair in its consideration and handling of this matter."
Rodriguez attorney Marv Robon could not immediately be reached for comment.
Rodriguez unsuccessfully argued that he and wife Rita were already residents of Michigan on the day the lawsuit was filed, offering the court a townhouse lease agreement and Michigan driver licenses as proof. They argued it made the case an interstate matter that should be heard in federal court.
Bailey, however, said the residency issue was irrelevant because of the state's clear jurisdiction.
Both statute and case law show the university "can hardly be said to be autonomous," Bailey wrote.
Among his 12 reasons for declaring WVU the "alter ego" of state government were: 12 of the 18 members of the Board of Governors are appointed by the governor; money can be withdrawn from WVU accounts only via checks issued by the state treasurer; and all university property is considered the property of the state.
Bailey also noted that university employees are state employees with salaries set by law, and that all tuition and fees must be certified by the state auditor.
His ruling said it's clear the outcome of the case will have an impact on state funds because any money paid to or held by the university is considered state money.
Rodriguez claims any buyout funds that are recovered would go to the school's private fundraising entity, the WVU Foundation, because that's what happened with a settlement reached in a buyout dispute with former basketball coach John Beilein.
Beilein, who also went to Michigan, ultimately agreed to pay the WVU Foundation $1.5 million.
"This court will not consider what may have transpired as part of an agreed settlement with respect to Coach Beilein," Bailey wrote.
"The contract in question, under which the 'buyout' moneys are sought, is a contract between Coach Rodriguez and the West Virginia University Board of Governors," he wrote. "That contract, assuming that it is valid and enforceable (an issue not presently before this court), requires Coach Rodriguez to pay the money to the university."
WVU argues it's owed the full $4 million because Rodriguez broke his contract early.
Rodriguez, however, has repeatedly claimed WVU broke the terms of his contract first by failing to honor a variety of verbal promises, including one to reduce or eliminate the buyout.
WVU denies such a promise was made and insists it was working to accommodate the coach's demands when he quit.
The next step in the case likely will be WVU's response to a counterclaim Rodriguez filed, arguing the WVU Foundation should be made a party to the lawsuit.
The foundation, which had been run in part by WVU President Mike Garrison's chief of staff, Craig Walker, is not legally obligated to open its books to public scrutiny under ordinary circumstances.
But it funnels money from boosters to WVU athletic programs, and Rodriguez contends a review of those books is the only way to prove whether the university has been harmed by his departure.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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