As he awaits the injury-delayed start of his promising NBA career, New Orleans Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson continues to battle an ex-representative in federal and state courts. A Florida judge’s ruling from earlier this week ensures that the battle will continue indefinitely and could eventually require Williamson to testify about his high school and collegiate experiences.
A brief summary of a multi-faceted legal dispute
In June, the former Duke superstar sued Gina Ford, the president of the Miami-based Prime Sports Marketing, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. For a roughly five-week period in April and May, Ford formally represented Williamson in negotiations with representatives of companies for prospective endorsement deals. Ford discussed the commercial use of Williamson’s name, image and likeness with such major brands as Mercedes-Benz, Puma, EA Sports, 2K Sports, General Mills, Burger King, Chase Bank and Harper Collins. No deals were struck, but Ford expended considerable energies on Williamson’s behalf.
By the end of May, Williamson had cut ties with Ford and signed with Creative Artists Agency agents Austin Brown and Lisa Joseph-Metelus. CAA would then represent Williamson in pending negotiations for an employment contract as an NBA player and in endorsement deals.
Williamson believes he had the right to drop Ford without paying her any compensation. To that point, Williamson contends that the five-year contract he signed with Prime Sports was unenforceable from the start.
North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act requires that representatives of college athletes warn, in writing, about the NCAA eligibility impact on the player by signing a contract. This obligation extends to agents who represent clients for endorsements and sponsorships. The Williamson-Prime Sports contract lacked such a warning. This omission could, and Williamson argues should, have major legal significance. While Williamson had already declared for the NBA draft by the time he signed with Prime Sports and was the presumptive No. 1 pick, under NCAA rules he technically had about five weeks to opt out of the draft and return to Duke for a sophomore season. He forfeited that right by signing with Prime Sports.
About a week after Williamson sued Ford, Ford sued Williamson, along with CAA, Brown and Joseph-Metelus, for more than $100 million in Miami-Dade County Circuit. This considerable monetary figure represents, among other things, lost commissions on would-be endorsement deals and damage to Ford’s professional reputation. Ford has represented Usain Bolt and Kevin Durant’s mother, Wanda Durant, among other public figures in marketing and entertainment deals.
Ford insists that the Williamson-Prime Sports contract made it very difficult for either she or Williamson to lawfully exit the contract without paying the other compensation. To that point, termination required “cause”, meaning misconduct so egregious that it undermines the essence of the contract. No such cause, Ford maintains, surfaced. This means Williamson arguably breached a contract in an illegal manner and now owes Ford damages.
Ford also charges that Williamson, who was an adult, signed a contract that is expressly governed by the laws of Florida, not North Carolina (Florida law also requires that the agent/representative issue a warning). Ford further maintains that Williamson misappropriated trade secrets and that CAA illegally induced Williamson to cut her out of the picture.
There’s a lot to unpack in this litigation but it centers on one basic question: Did Williamson unlawfully breach a contract to have Ford represent him in endorsement deals?
New and important developments in the Florida part of the dispute
The Williamson-Ford litigation appears nowhere near resolution. This hazy state of affairs was reaffirmed in a recent ruling by Florida Circuit Court Judge David Miller. On Dec. 16, Judge Miller presided over a hearing held at Miami-Dade County Courthouse. It involved attorneys for both sides and centered on Williamson’s motion to dismiss Ford’s lawsuit.
Sports Illustrated has obtained a transcript of the hearing.
Arguing for Williamson, attorney Jeffrey Klein of Weil, Gotshal & Manges insisted that the Florida court lacks sufficient personal jurisdiction over Williamson. Personal jurisdiction refers to a court’s authority to render decisions impacting a particular person or entity. In order for a court to have such authority, there must be “minimum contacts” between that person (Williamson and his co-defendants) and the state (Florida).
As Klein sees it, the dispute between Williamson and Ford concerns alleged facts that occurred completely outside of Florida and Williamson—who is from South Carolina and went to college in North Carolina—had no ties to Florida during the relevant period. To that end, Williams negotiated and signed a marketing representative contract with Ford in North Carolina. The signing took place on April 20, five days after Williamson had declared for the 2019 NBA draft and a few weeks after the Michigan State Spartans had upset Williamson’s Blue Devils in the Elite Eight. Ford, furthermore, travelled to North Carolina for Williamson’s signing.
Klein also maintains that the trade secrets piece of Ford’s lawsuit involves alleged events that happened well outside of the Sunshine State. Ford contends that Williamson, or someone his behalf, requested a copy of a marketing plan that Ford had prepared for him. The plan contained trade secrets, specifically Ford’s strategies for Williamson to land lucrative endorsement deals. Ford asserts that Williamson misappropriated those trade secrets by sharing the plan with CAA. Klein, however, contends that any misappropriation couldn’t have occurred in Florida.
“Mr. Williamson,” Klein asserted to Judge Miller in the hearing, “has only been to the State of Florida twice . . . he has no nexus to the state of Florida.” Klein added, “like many people, [Williamson] enjoyed Disney World with his family as a child and he was here once as a college basketball player to play one college basketball game here. So even if the allegations are true with respect to misappropriations, that happened outside of the state.”
Speaking on behalf of Ford at the hearing, attorney Stephen Drummond of Drummond & Squillace bluntly rejected Klein’s reasoning. “A defendant,” Drummond insisted, “doesn’t get to say, ‘we are in North Carolina and everything we do in North Carolina means we don't get to come to Florida.’” Drummond highlighted that the Miami address of Prime Sports is stated on the first page of the contract. Williamson, Drummond stressed to Judge Miller, was thereby on clear notice that “he is going into business with a Florida company.” Such a viewpoint suggests Williamson had sufficient contacts with Florida.
Drummond also emphasized that Williamson or someone on his behalf (thought to be his mother, Sharonda Simpson) received a bank wire payment from Florida. Williamson is arguably further tied to Florida by refusing to pay—as instructed by his contract with the Florida-based Ford—a 15% commission on endorsement deals. Additionally, Drummond emphasized that the Williamson-Ford contract unambiguously declares that any contractual disputes should be interpreted using Florida law.
“He is dealing with a Florida company, having communications in Florida, talking to her in Florida, receiving money from Florida,” Drummond summarized in court. “He entered into a contract where the top of the contract tells you this is a Florida company.”
Judge Miller sided with Ford’s legal team. “The pockets that are being picked,” the judged observed, “are here [in Florida].” Judge Miller stressed that Ford has “letters, phone calls, emails [and] payment obligations” linked to Florida and that Williamson’s alleged “ongoing and continuing theft” of Ford is tied to a Florida company, Prime Sports.
As a result, Judge Miller denied Williamson’s motion to dismiss on personal jurisdiction grounds. Williamson’s attorneys have 20 days to file a response; they can also file an appeal, though appellate courts are usually hesitant to consider appeals before a case concludes in trial court.
Next steps and why a settlement could happen at any time
Ford’s attorneys are elated by the ruling, which ensures that their client’s case will continue in Florida. Judge Miller’s ruling also makes it more likely that Williamson and CAA officials will be subject to potentially onerous pretrial discovery requests.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Ford’s lead attorney, Willie Gary of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary, enthusiastically observed, “to put this in basketball terms, that hearing was ‘nothing but net.’” Another attorney for Ford, Larry Strauss of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary, tells Sports Illustrated that their “intention is to proceed with depositions of the key people involved in the dispute, and those with insider knowledge about Williamson’s breach of the agreement and actions occurring prior to signing it.”
Meanwhile, Williamson’s litigation against Ford continues in North Carolina, with no end in sight. The most recent filing in the North Carolina case is from October, when attorneys for Ford filed a motion to dismiss with U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs. As noted above, Williamson’s attorneys maintain that the contract he signed with Ford was unenforceable from the start and thus Ford’s various arguments stemming from the contract are irrelevant.
While both sides firmly believe in their interpretations of laws and facts—and thus would prevail in trials held in either Florida or North Carolina—a trial remains unlikely. It is much more probable that the two sides negotiate a financial settlement.
Consider Williamson’s perspective. His focus is almost certainly not on multi-state litigation with a former representative, but instead on recovering from surgery to repair a torn right lateral meniscus. The 7-22 Pelicans are second to last place in the Western Conference, just ahead of the 5-24 Golden State Warriors. Williamson had been expected to return by early to mid-December, but the timetable for his NBA debut has been pushed back.
The continuation of the litigation will likely be inconveniencing and possibly invasive for Williamson and for those close to him. Generally, when a court rejects a motion to dismiss, the case moves into a pretrial phase that calls for the sharing of documents (including copies of sensitive emails and texts) and the taking of both depositions (where witnesses orally answer questions while under oath) and interrogatories (where witnesses answer questions in writing while under oath). Even when attorneys handle most of the work, this process can be time-consuming, aggravating and stressful for parties and witnesses.
Attorneys for Ford could also seek evidence from Williamson and his parents that might be connected to uncorroborated claims by attorney Michael Avenatti in his case with the U.S. Department of Justice. Avenatti maintains that Nike approved illicit payments to Williamson while he was in high school. The sneaker company also allegedly paid Simpson (Williamson’s mother) for “bogus consulting services” as part of an arrangement that secured Williamson’s commitment to play at Duke. To be clear, Duke conducted an internal investigation and found no NCAA violations relating to Williamson. Whether the Williamson-Ford litigation reveals information or testimony that complicates things remains to be seen.
Williamson and CAA would also seem to have the financial wherewithal to strike a deal with Ford. In July, Williamson signed a reported 5-year, $75 million endorsement deal with the Nike-owned Jordan Brand. He has also signed multi-million-dollar deals with Mountain Dew, Gatorade, Panini America and 2K Sports. As the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft Williamson is also paid well by the Pelicans. He is guaranteed $20 million over the next two seasons and would be paid an additional $24.3 million over the following two seasons should the Pelicans exercise contract options. It’s safe to assume that companies endorsed by Williamson would prefer that he settle any legal disputes that could eventually harm his reputation and image.
On the other hand, Williamson and his attorneys might gamble that they’ll ultimately prevail in a trial. As discussed above, the contract Williamson signed with Prime Sports omitted a key warning—and such an omission could have rendered the contract unenforceable. Williamson’s attorneys also know that Ford would be subject to pretrial discovery. That process could prove as disruptive for her as it would for Williamson.
We’ll see how it plays out. But odds are they’ll strike a deal.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.