Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court of Claims: Kent State Owes Fired Football Coach $112,000 for Breaching Contract

James M. Fleming v. Kent State University, Case No. 2011-093635

Kent State University tried to reverse the legal argument it used to recover money from its former head basketball coach, but was tripped up in court and suffered a $112,000 loss to a former football defensive coordinator.

The Ohio Court of Claims ruled Friday that KSU owes former defensive coordinator James M. Fleming nearly $112,000 for reassigning him to the athletic department in February 2011. The move came after the university replaced head football coach Doug Martin with Darrell Hazell, who filled his coaching staff without offering Fleming a position. Hazell has since left to become the head coach at Purdue University.

When KSU’s associate athletic director notified Fleming that he was being reassigned as an assistant to the athletic director, Fleming rejected the offer and instead forced the university to terminate him, arguing his contract was breached. His contract was to pay $71,500 a year for 28 months, with the potential for bonuses.

Fleming landed with the University of Central Florida in December 2011 as its defensive coordinator and was hired as the head coach at the University of Rhode Island in December 2013.

Fleming sued Kent State in the Ohio Court of Claims. While the court found in October 2012 that KSU breached Fleming’s contract, it set a second hearing to determine damages. In October 2013, the court found that Central Florida paid Fleming about $4,000 more for coaching during the 16-month period than he would have earned from KSU. Ruling that he did not suffer actual damage, the court awarded Fleming only his $25 filing fee.

Fleming appealed to the 10th District Court of Appeals, which ruled in August 2014 that the Court of Claims failed to use the correct standard to determine if Fleming was owed damages and sent it back to the Court of Claims.

Back before the Court of Claims, KSU argued that any additional financial award to Fleming would be a windfall, because even though he was out of a coaching job for 10 months, he earned more from the time he spent at Central Florida than he would have had he stayed in his position at Kent State throughout his contract.

“Interestingly, (KSU) took the opposite position in a case involving a breach of contract by (KSU’s) former head basketball coach,” Court of Claims Judge Patrick M. McGrath wrote.

In January, the 11th District Court of Appeals ruled that former KSU basketball coach Geno Ford owed the university $1.2 million for leaving his post early to become the new head coach at Bradley University. The university then sued Ford for breach of contract to invoke the damages clause in the contract, which is similar to the one in Fleming’s contact. Ford argued KSU suffered no real damages from his departure and that the liquidated damages clause was not enforceable because it served only as a penalty. ¬†KSU argued the clause was valid and enforceable. In ruling in the university’s favor, the 11th District wrote: “In cases involving a valid liquidated damages clause, however, the party seeking such damages need not prove that actual damages resulted from a breach.”

McGrath followed the lead of the 11th District, noting it was not unreasonable or unfair for Fleming to have a contract that required the university pay him his salary for each month remaining on his contract should he be terminated, as it would not be unreasonable for him to pay the university that amount had he left early for another job.

The Court of Claims calculated that Fleming was owed about $98,300 for the 16 and-a-half months remaining on his contract, plus another $13,200 in interest from the time of the contract breach in February 2011 until the court’s ruling last week.

The Court of Claims is given original jurisdiction to hear and determine all civil actions filed against the state of Ohio and its agencies.

To access information on other cases visit the Court of Claims website.

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