Supreme Court Throws Out Prospective Coach's $1 Million Verdict
On August 8, 2012, the University of Minnesota and its head basketball coach, Tubby Smith, scored a “buzzer beater” when the Minnesota Supreme Court threw out a $1 million jury verdict in favor of prospective assistant coach Jimmy Williams. Williams v. Smith, Nos. A10-1802 and A11-0567 (Minn. Aug. 8, 2012).
As we previously reported, Williams claimed that after Smith offered him an assistant coaching job, he quit his job at Oklahoma State and prepared to move to Minnesota, only to have Coach Smith rescind the job offer. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that because Smith had no duty of care to Williams, the negligent misrepresentation claim failed as a matter of law.
The court explained that the dealings between Smith and Williams consisted of negotiating potential government employment, which was not that type of relationship that is typically accorded legal protection. Specifically, there was no professional or fiduciary relationship between the two and Smith was not acting as an advisor to Williams. Thus, it did not matter that Smith failed to explain to Williams that Athletic Director Joel Maturi would actually make the final hiring decision, as Williams contended.
Moreover, the nature of this relationship “was that of two sophisticated business people, both watching out for their individual interest while negotiating at arm’s length.” Both, Smith and Williams had decades of coaching experience which included negotiating coaching contracts and exposure to a variety of hiring practices.
The court was, however, quick to criticize the University for how it handled the hiring. “[T]he manner in which [the University and Smith] treated Williams . . . was unfair and disappointing.” More importantly, the court specifically noted that even though Williams may not have a claim for negligent misrepresentation, a prospective employee like Williams could have a claim for intentional fraudulent misrepresentation.
Williams and his attorney are said to be giving strong consideration to further appeals.
Even though the University and Smith ultimately came out on top, Minnesota employers would be best-served by continuing to follow our coaching tips for prospective employees:
- Be precise when communicating a job offer, disclosing any limitations or contingencies (e.g. background check, drug test).
- Send an offer letter or document the proposal in some other fashion to be sure that there is no misunderstanding about the terms.
- Know the limits of your authority. Don’t promise more than you can deliver and anticipate that applicants will rely on what you say.