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Holmes v. Florida A&M University: Former Football and Men’s Basketball Coach Entitled to Trial

Earl Holmes (“Holmes”) is the former head football coach and Clemon J. Johnson (“Johnson”) is the former head basketball coach at Florida A&M University (“FAMU”) (collectively “Coaches”). Coaches were terminated by FAMU and FAMU ceased paying Coaches. Coaches filed suit that was ultimately dismissed by the trial court. Coaches filed an appeal.

When Holmes was promoted to head football coach and Johnson returned to FAMU as the head basketball coach, FAMU entered into separate, yet similar written employment agreement with Coaches. The employment agreements set forth specific start and end dates for their “appointments,” the language used in the agreements to specify the term of each agreement. Holmes testified that the FAMU athletic director told him the term of his agreement was a guaranteed of four (4) years.

During Coaches’ appointments with FAMU, Coaches received letters from the then president of FAMU informing them that they were immediately placed on “administrative leave” and that their employment would end sixty (60) days after the dates of their letters. Neither of Coaches was terminated based on any of the “for cause” grounds as listed in their respective employment agreements. Both sixty (60) day administrative leave periods ended prior to the end dates set out in Section 2.01 of their respective employment agreements. The FAMU’s president’s letters stated that the terminations were “[p]ursuant to paragraph 5.1 of your Employment Agreement and Florida A&M University Board of Trustees (FAMU) regulations 10.105 and 10.106.” Coaches’ contractual salaries were paid until the end dates stated in the letters.

The First District Court of Appeals in Florida stated the law is well-settled that an employment contract with a specified term of duration is not terminable at will, but can only be terminated prior to its end date if provided for in the contract. Reading the employment agreements and incorporated regulations as a whole, giving meaning and effect to all provisions, and construing any ambiguities against FAMU as the drafter of both contracts and incorporated regulations, the First District Court of Appeals in Florida found that FAMU was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The only use of the word “terminated” in FAMU regulations 10.105 and 10.106 is found in regulation 10.105(5) pertaining to probationary employees. Because neither of the Coaches were terminated during the first six months of their employment, the referenced subsections were inapplicable. The First District Court of Appeals in Florida further stated that FAMU’s use of the terms “non-renewal,” “non-reappointment,” “separated from University employment,” and “terminated” in separate portions of these regulations established that “non-renewal,” “non-reappointment,” and “separated” may not be synonymous with “terminated.”

Ultimately, the First District Court of Appeals in Florida concluded due to conflicts in the express terms of Coaches’ contracts, including FAMU’s regulations incorporated therein, the early terminations of the employment contracts without cause merely upon sixty (60) days’ notice may have violated the specific terms of the employment contracts. This ambiguity requires that FAMU was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, the summary judgments in favor of FAMU against the Coaches were reversed on all counts, and the causes were remanded for further proceedings.

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