Women's Professional Soccer has suffered a setback in court that will force the league to contend with dissident owner Dan Borislow for at least another week, perhaps longer.
On Monday, Florida Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser ruled WPS failed to follow proper procedures before terminating Borislow's magicJack team, which played in 2011 with a powerful roster including Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and other U.S. national team players.
But the court has not yet granted Borislow the temporary injunction he's seeking to reinstate his team. Sasser's ruling reserves judgment on several issues, particularly the issue of "irreparable harm," giving the league a chance to present its arguments.
The league has previously stated the ongoing litigation could cause "irreparable harm," forcing it into a legal or financial operational situation it likely could not survive. Sasser has set a four-hour hearing for Jan. 18.
"We are extremely disappointed with the court's findings and will consider our legal options," WPS WPS CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan said in a statement. "Mr. Borislow's abusive behavior and blatant disregard for League rules were a clear breach of contract and led to the Boards' dismissal of magicJack as a franchise. His statements and actions negatively impacted the league's business including efforts to attract expansion teams and sponsors, jeopardized player safety and threatened the very integrity of the League.
"WPS owners took several measures to rectify the situation before making the difficult decision to dismiss Mr. Borislow from the League. If the court rules to reinstate the franchise, my fear is that ownership will seriously consider folding the League, thus ending professional soccer for women in the United States."
Sasser's ruling will not be a referendum on that tumultuous year. The ruling limits itself to the issue of whether Borislow is entitled to go through mediation and arbitration before termination, not whether Borislow failed to follow a myriad of league rules over the course of his
one season as owner.
"In making this finding, the Court is not making any determination as to the underlying merits of the parties' dispute," the ruling stated.
Borislow, reached by email Monday night, doesn't believe he violated any rules.
"I never didn't comply with rules," Borislow said. "They are their allegations and lies."
Borislow's legal skirmish with the league started in August, when he sought an injunction against what he said was a league effort to terminate his ownership rights before the end of the season. WPS said it would allow magicJack to finish the season with him as owner, and his legal action was dropped.
In late October, WPS announced it had terminated the team. The league wasn't able to finalize an expansion team for the 2012 season, and U.S. Soccer agreed -- after some delay -- to give WPS its conditional blessing as a five-team league.
In the meantime, Borislow once again took legal action against the league in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, seeking reinstatement of his team. The league moved to dismiss the case, saying Borislow had no valid claim and had filed in the wrong venue, but the court denied the WPS motion in early December.
Legal documents from both sides were made public, casting light on the ruptured relationship between the league and the maverick South Florida owner. The league painted a picture of an owner who simply refused to recognize the authority of the CEO and poisoned the league's relationships with sponsors.
For all the dramatic conflicts, though, the case turned on technical interpretations of the league's policies. Borislow argued his team could not be terminated without going through an independent mediation or arbitration process. WPS argued otherwise: "[T]he Operating Agreement and LLC Agreement do not require mediation and arbitration prior to the League's decision to terminate." Those processes, the league argued, were designed to settle disputes over any relief WPS must offer a terminated owner, not whether the league could proceed with termination.
The court disagreed.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, WPS teams are signing free agents
-- national teamers Heather O'Reilly (Boston), Lori Lindsey (Western New York) and Becky Sauerbrunn (Sky Blue) have new clubs. Wambach, Solo and most other former magicJack players remain unsigned but are legally able to strike a deal with any WPS team as free agents.
Wambach recently said she hasn't decided if she will play in the league this season because of the possibility of the U.S. competing in the 2012 London Olympics.
The league is holding its draft of college seniors this Friday in Kansas City -- without magicJack.