Judge sides with Zion Williamson against ex-marketing agent

Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans. (Rusty Costanza/AP)

A federal judge in North Carolina has ruled in favour of New Orleans Pelicans player Zion Williamson in a case concerning a contract he terminated with a Florida-based marketing agent who is seeking $100 million in damages from the former Duke star.

U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, ruled on Wednesday that marketing agent Gina Ford's contract with Williamson was void because Ford was not a licensed agent in the state at the time she met with Williamson and because the contract did not comply with key requirements outlined by the state's sports agent law, the Uniform Athlete Agents Act.

The act requires that the contract include warnings explaining how hiring agents causes athletes to forfeit their amateur status. It also requires such contracts to include a disclaimer giving athletes 14 days to cancel.

"We are grateful that the court invalidated the contract based on the merits of the case, in line with the clear, relevant requirements under North Carolina law,'' Williamson lawyer Jeffrey S. Klein said in a written statement. "The court confirmed that actual facts matter, which hopefully will serve as a cautionary tale for unscrupulous agents looking to prey on student athletes.''

Attorney Willie E. Gary, who is part of Ford's legal team, noted that the order "impacts only some of the claims in the North Carolina case.''

"Most of the counterclaims remain, and we intend to vigorously pursue them,'' he said. "We are also reviewing all options for appeal.''

The counterclaims include allegations of tortious interference, or that CAA interfered with the business relationship between Williamson and Prime Sports, as well as unjust enrichment and theft of trade secrets.

"Williamson's new agent should not be able to benefit from Ms. Ford's considerable efforts,'' Gary said.

It remains to be seen how the federal ruling affects a separate but related lawsuit filed by Ford in Florida state court seeking damages for breach of contract.

Williamson filed the federal lawsuit in North Carolina in June 2019 to terminate a five-year contract with Ford's agency, Prime Sports Marketing, after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Attorneys for Ford and Prime Sports had alleged that North Carolina's athlete agent law should not apply to Williamson because Williamson and his family had accepted improper financial benefits while he was still enrolled at Duke. Ford's attorney's filed an affidavit alleging a $400,000 payment was made to Williamson's family before the former Duke star began his lone college season.

Klein asked the court to disregard the affidavit, arguing that the allegations were false, that supporting documents were fraudulent and that the facts in the case remained that Williamson completed his lone season at Duke in good standing and had never been ruled ineligible by the NCAA.

The judge agreed, noting that there was no legal basis for the courts to decide whether Williamson had violated NCAA rules.

"Defendants have provided no authority, caselaw or otherwise, that suggests that it is for a court to adjudicate the details of a student-athlete's eligibility under NCAA rules,'' Wednesday's ruling stated. "Rather, in applying the statute, it would appear that the Court's role is to determine whether the student-athlete has been either determined to be or declared `permanently ineligible' by the governing body authorized to do so. Defendants have not alleged that this has occurred.''

In the state court case in Florida, Ford's attorneys have sought to have Williamson, the NBA's 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick, answer questions under oath about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

A Florida appeals court in June granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn't involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson's eligibility previously and found no concerns.

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