The feud between former University of Arkansas Head Football Coach Bret Bielema and the Razorback Foundation is getting worse.
Earlier this month, Bielema’s attorneys made a rare and aggressive motion for sanctions against lawyers for the Razorback Foundation, alleging the nonprofit that raises money for the university’s Athletics Department had no evidence to support its allegations of fraud and conspiracy against Bielema and his agent, Neil Cornrich.
In June, Bielema sued the Razorback Foundation in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville seeking at least $7 million for not being paid the remaining portion of a 2018 buyout deal that he signed after being fired at the end of the 2017 season.
In its response, the foundation denied it owed Bielema the money and countersued him to recover $4.5 million it had paid him under the buyout. The foundation also accused Bielema of violating the terms of the buyout agreement that required him to look for a job that maximized his earning potential, “not just to take a job that built his resume while the Foundation footed the bill.”
The foundation alleged that before signing the buyout agreement in 2018, “Bielema had already brokered a deal with the New England Patriots where he would be making less than the $150,000 threshold amount,” preventing the foundation from reducing its monthly payments of nearly $321,000, which was part of the buyout agreement. Bielema worked for the Super Bowl-winning franchise for two seasons. In 2020, Bielema left the Patriots and joined the New York Giants as its outside linebackers/senior assistant with a $400,000 salary.
The foundation said in its counterclaim that Cornrich worked with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was also his client, to help keep Bielema’s pay for the Patriots “far below market price for a former Division 1 head football coach.”
It is this allegation that prompted Bielema’s attorneys to ask for sanctions, saying the foundation’s attorneys didn’t make “a reasonable inquiry” into the “quintessentially frivolous” claims of a conspiracy involving Bielema’s pay.
Cornrich’s attorney, Richard N. Watts of the Little Rock firm Watts Donovan & Tilley, also joined the motion for sanctions.
The motion for sanctions “is nothing short of extraordinary,” wrote Thomas Mars of the Mars Law Firm of Rogers, one of several of Bielema’s attorneys. “Not once in their 200 years of collective experience have any of the undersigned counsel filed a Rule 11 motion against any lawyer.” Bielema’s attorneys also include R. Craig Wood and Benjamin P. Abel of the McGuire Woods law firm in Charlottesville, Virginia; John C. Everett of Farmington; John E. Tull III of the Quattlebaum Grooms & Tull law firm in Little Rock; and Ryan K. Culpepper of Hot Springs.
Most of Bielema’s attorneys have had prior professional relationships with the foundation’s attorneys, who are Marshall S. Ney, Robert W. George, Katherine Church Campbell and Blake Brizzolara, all of the Rogers office of Friday Eldredge & Clark.
Ney said in the foundation’s filing that the motion for sanctions is baseless and should be denied.
“The Motion is nothing short of an ongoing campaign to use the litigation process for improper purposes to squelch and silence a legitimate claim by the Foundation and to fulfill past threats to inflict damage and harm on every person and entity in their path through the media,” Ney wrote.
Situations in which attorneys file for a Rule 11 sanction — essentially accusing other attorneys of bringing frivolous claims — are rare, said Joshua Silverstein, a professor at the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. And he said it’s even rarer for an attorney to be sanctioned for it. “But it does happen now and then,” Silverstein said.
If the sanctions are awarded, the foundation’s attorneys could be fined or the foundation’s counterclaim could be dismissed, Silverstein said.
Grounds for Sanctions
The foundation said in its counterclaim that Bielema had a contractual duty to maximize his earnings and to minimize the amount the foundation owed him. Instead, the foundation claims that “Bielema took himself off the job market — at a pay rate far below his actual earning potential — for two years … when he signed with the New England Patriots in violation of his legal obligations to the Foundation.”
But Bielema’s attorneys said the counterclaim wasn’t based on evidence, logic or common sense.
“In order to embrace the Foundation’s theory, the finder of fact would have to conclude that the head coach of a multi-billion dollar NFL team that has enjoyed a beneficial relationship with Razorback football for many years conspired with his agent to save the Patriots (in context) an imagined pittance in exchange for no personal benefit; cheat the Foundation for no sensible reason; or both,” Mars wrote.
Mars also said that the foundation was given “indisputable evidence to the contrary almost two years ago,” but it went ahead and filed the countersuit anyway.
“It would, therefore, appear that the conspiracy allegations and fraud theory were an eleventh-hour invention created by opposing counsel to raise the reputational and financial costs of this litigation for Coach Bielema,” Mars wrote.
The attorneys for the foundation said in response that there is more than enough evidence to “sufficiently plead a fraud claim, to justify discovery, and to deny the Motion” for sanctions.
Ney also said that the fraud claim wasn’t imagined at the last minute; rather, the foundation put Bielema’s attorneys on notice of a claim back in March 2019. That’s when the foundation said in a letter that it was “crystal clear” that Bielema and his team didn’t intend to comply with the terms of the buyout agreement by looking for another high-paying job.
Ney also said he asked Bielema’s attorneys for evidence showing that he was looking for a job. The foundation’s attorneys received “nothing but emails and articles showing no effort on Bielema’s part,” the suit said.
Ney said the motion is “another attempt to intimidate and to silence the Foundation’s legal claims and/or to strong-arm the Foundation into settlement to avoid adverse publicity.”
Ney said that Bielema’s attorneys’ motion is “baseless in fact and law” and should be denied. He also said the foundation should be awarded costs and fees connected with defending the motion.
U.S. District Judge P. K. Holmes III is presiding over the case and as of Tuesday hadn’t made a ruling.