North Carolina judge sides with ACC on Clemson trial venue

Reaffirming an opinion issued three months ago in a similar case, a North Carolina judge ruled Wednesday that legal questions about Clemson’s ties to the ACC should be addressed in the state where the conference is located, not at the university level.

In addition, Louis Bledsoe, chief judge of the North Carolina Commercial Court, suggested that to avoid a chaotic stalemate, the cases brought by Clemson and Florida State challenging the ACC’s exit fee and media rights award should be consolidated and decided in North Carolina.

“The only court that has jurisdiction over FSU, Clemson and the ACC, and therefore the only court that can provide a consistent, uniform interpretation of the Grant Agreements and the ACC Constitution and Bylaws … is a North Carolina court,” Bledsoe wrote. “A Florida court in a Florida case cannot bind Clemson in South Carolina. A South Carolina court in a South Carolina case cannot bind FSU in Florida.

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“Each of those courts, as well as this court, could reach conflicting conclusions about the very terms of the very same North Carolina agreements upon which the pending cases are based, thereby creating procedural chaos and tremendous confusion at a time when the ACC, FSU and Clemson need binding clarity about their rights under the ACC’s most important agreements with its members.

“Only a North Carolina court, likely in a single consolidated North Carolina proceeding, can issue consistent, uniform findings binding on ACC, FSU, and Clemson regarding documents at issue in all four pending proceedings.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney lifts the trophy after the team beat North Carolina in the 2022 ACC Championship Game. The Tigers are the conference’s best-performing program and brand.

Jacob Kupferman, Associated Press

Bledsoe denied Clemson’s motions to dismiss/stay the league’s counterclaim against the school on sovereign immunity grounds. Clemson, a charter member of the ACC, sued the conference on March 19 in Pickens County, South Carolina, prompting the league to file suit the next day in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where the ACC is headquartered.

Like Florida State, Clemson is challenging the league’s $130 million exit fee and rights grant, a document that gives television rights to the home sports of each conference member through the 2035-36 academic year. The schools argue their cases should be heard separately in their home states.

The presidents of Clemson and FSU, along with their ACC colleagues, signed the league’s original GOR in 2013 and then a revised contract in 2016. But the Tigers and Seminoles, the league’s top football franchises, later decided the ACC’s contract with ESPN, which also expires in 2036, did not pay them enough to compete with the wealthier Big Ten and SEC.

On Friday, a South Carolina judge is scheduled to hear arguments on the ACC’s motions to dismiss/stay Clemson’s lawsuit.

Florida State and the ACC are similarly involved. Correctly anticipating that FSU would sue last December in Leon County, Fla., the league filed a preemptive complaint against the Seminoles the day before in Mecklenburg County.

Bledsoe said in April that the FSU-ACC case should be heard in North Carolina, but Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper ruled last month that the case could be heard there.

“We are pleased with today’s ruling because it confirms that only a North Carolina court can issue a decision that would apply to both Clemson and Florida State,” the ACC said in a statement Wednesday. “This opinion also reinforces what the ACC has made clear from day one — North Carolina courts are the proper venue to enforce and interpret ACC agreements.

“As the court found, Clemson does not dispute whether the ACC grant of rights is valid or enforceable. It recognizes the ACC’s consistent position that the 2013 and 2016 grants of rights are valid and enforceable agreements that each of our members entered into voluntarily, with full knowledge of their terms.”