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Florida Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Former College Coaches in Contract Dispute


According to reporting from WCTV.tv, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal reversed a 2017 ruling that dismissed the breach of contract claims filed by two former coaches of Florida A&M University. Earl Holmes, the school’s former basketball coach, and Clemon Johnson, the school’s former football coach, both had their employment contracts terminated early.

While a Leon County Circuit Court Judge ruled that Florida A&M was within its rights in terminating the agreements without paying the coaches the remainder of their salary, the appeals court determined that there are still legal issues that must be resolved. The dispute is now set to go to trial.

Florida A&M Exercised Early Termination Options on Both Coaches 

While these are separate legal cases, the underlying facts are very similar. Florida A&M terminated basketball coach Clemon J. Johnson following the 2013-2014 season. Likewise, the university’s athletic department fired head football coach Earl Holmes at the end of the 2014 season. In both cases, the school exercised its early termination option to remove the coaches without paying the remainder of their salary. Both coaches countered that they had ‘guaranteed’ contracts, and that Florida A&M did not have the right to dismiss them without cause. Each coach filed a breach of contract claim against the university.

Appeals Court: The Early Termination Options May Not Be Enforceable  

A Leon County Circuit Judge approved both breach of contract lawsuits on the grounds the university was entirely within its rights when it exercised the early termination options. However, on review of the case, the First District Court of Appeals calls this decision into question. The appeals court ruled that the circuit court erred in dismissing the lawsuits because there remain material facts that are in dispute.

Specifically, the core question in each case is whether or not Florida A&M’s early termination options are actually enforceable under state law. Both contracts had nearly identical language. In Florida, early termination options in employment contract must have unambiguous terms. If they do not, then these options will not be enforced. Florida courts require employers to ensure that:

  • Early termination provisions clear and unambiguous; and
  • The employee reasonably understands the terms.

In this case, the appeals court ruled that it is possible that ambiguities exist in the agreements. As such, the original decision has been reversed and the case has been remanded for further proceedings.

This dispute provides an important lesson for Florida employers: Language in employment contracts must be clear and unambiguous. If there is confusion over the terms of the contract, Florida courts are more likely to favor the employee.

Contact Our South Florida Contract Litigation Attorneys Today

At Pike & Lustig, LLP, we are proud to be the Big Firm Alternative ™. Our Florida commercial litigation attorneys have extensive experience handling complex contract cases. If you are involved in a contract dispute in South Florida, please do not hesitate to contact our legal team for immediate assistance. With an office in West Palm Beach and an office in Miami, we handle business law cases throughout the region.



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