MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a $1 million award against the University of Minnesota and men's basketball coach Tubby Smith on Wednesday, ruling that although they treated a prospective assistant coach unfairly, they couldn't be held financially responsible for backing out of a job offer that Smith lacked the authority to make.
Jimmy Williams quit as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State University in 2007 because he believed Smith had hiring authority when he offered him an assistant coaching position shortly after Smith became head coach at Minnesota. That fell through after Minnesota's athletics director, Joel Maturi, learned that Williams was cited for multiple major NCAA rules violations while working as a Golden Gophers assistant coach from 1971 to 1986, the court noted.
Williams sued, claiming he reasonably relied on Smith's statements during the negotiating process and that Smith therefore had a legal obligation to him.
A Hennepin County jury and the state appeals court sided with Williams, but the high court overturned those decisions Wednesday.
"We believe that the manner in which appellants treated Williams regarding his prospective employment with the University was unfair and disappointing. We do not condone their conduct," Justice Christopher Dietzen wrote for the majority.
The court concluded that Smith didn't owe Williams legal protection against negligently misrepresenting his authority. It said publicly available information showed that Maturi had the authority to hire the assistant men's basketball coach and that Smith didn't. It also said Smith told Williams just before Williams submitted his resignation to Oklahoma State that Maturi would have to sign off on their deal.
"Williams never asked whether Smith had the authority to hire; he simply assumed that authority existed," the court said.
In dissent, Justice Helen Meyer wrote that the high court should have affirmed the jury's verdict, saying Smith did have a legal obligation to Williams.
"Smith knew the limits of his hiring authority and simply had a duty not to falsely represent the scope of his hiring authority when he knew that Williams would rely on that authority to resign from his position at OSU," Meyer wrote. "On the other hand, the failure to use due care had enormous consequences for Williams, who suffered losses exceeding $1 million in reasonably relying on Smith's false representation that he had final authority to hire assistant coaches."
University general counsel Mark Rotenberg called the decision "a major vindication" after five years of litigation.
"Coach Smith feels vindicated that the court has now clearly said that he did not snooker Jimmy Williams into leaving his job and coming to Minnesota," Rotenberg said.
Rotenberg added that the court recognized that Smith never told Williams he had a final job offer and indeed told him just the opposite -- that the athletics director would have the final say.
Williams' attorney, Donald Chance Mark Jr., issued a statement expressing disappointment.
"While we believe the decision of the Supreme Court is in error, and we are considering our remaining legal options, 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. 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," the statement said.
Williams has been an assistant at the University of Memphis since last December. His profile on the Tigers' website says Williams trained players by himself and worked at the John Lucas basketball camp in Houston after leaving Oklahoma State.