Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Hoops star notches legal victory 

Heath Hamacher//August 16, 2022

Hoops star notches legal victory 

Heath Hamacher//August 16, 2022

In this Jan. 5, 2019, file photo, Duke’s Zion Williamson drives for a dunk against Clemson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Durham, N.C. Zion. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

A Florida-based marketing agent looking to recoup $100 million from former Duke basketball star and current NBA player Zion Williamson will receive nothing after a federal judge on July 18 disposed of all counterclaims by the defendant agent, finding that the claims fail as a matter of law since the contract between the two parties is void under the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agents Act.  

On Jan. 20, 2021, district court Judge Loretta Biggs found that the agreement is void under the UAAA because the agent, Gina Ford, was not registered with the state at the time she met with Williamson, and it lacked the requisite language stating that Williamson would forfeit NCAA eligibility by signing the contract.  

Signing with a new team 

Before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, Williamson played at Duke during the 2018-19 season. According to court documents, it is disputed whether Williamson or Ford initiated the relationship between Ford’s company, Prime Sports, but the parties began discussing a potential partnership in February 2019 and entered into an agreement in April 2019. The agreement provided that Prime Sports would provide “identity branding and endorsement opportunities” and exclusively oversee all marketing opportunities brought before Williamson.  

In April and May of 2019, Williamson and his family were contacted by a competing agency, Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Williamson emailed Ford on May 31, 2019, to terminate their agreement. He signed with CAA the same day. Williamson sued Prime Sports on June 13, 2019, alleging that the defendants fraudulently induced him to sign their agreement. Defendants filed their answer with counterclaims including breach of contract, fraud, unjust enrichment and misappropriation of trade secrets.  

In her Jan. 20, 2021 ruling, Biggs wrote that the agreement was void as a matter of law because Williamson was a student-athlete under the UAAA, and neither Prime Sports nor the agreement complied with the UAAA’s requirements for student athletic agents and agency agreements. The defendants motioned to vacate or amend the court’s decision, but on Sept. 15, 2021, Biggs denied those motions.  

Fair play 

Here, Williamson and the defendants both argued that they are entitled to summary judgment on the counterclaims. The defendants contend that the agreement is valid and enforceable because Williamson breached the agreement and the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing. However, since the agreement is void under the UAAA, Biggs wrote, the claims fail as a matter of law.  

Biggs also shot down claims that Williamson received financial or economic benefits from the defendants for which they have not been compensated.   

“Contracts in violation of the UAAA are void as against public policy,” Biggs wrote. “Defendants are not entitled to recover payment for the work they did, or recoup benefits they provided to Plaintiff pursuant to the Agreement under a theory of unjust enrichment.”  

Defendants claimed in their answer that Williamson lied to Ford to obtain a written marketing plan that they intended to share with CAA rather than for their purported purpose of ensuring that Ford was establishing “a global brand and not just … endorsement deals.” But in their briefing, Biggs notes, defendants argued that Williams falsely omitted his discussions with CAA and his plan to end his relationship with Prime Sports, inducing the agency to provide him with the plan and other benefits. Biggs held that defendants are not allowed to “pivot at the summary judgment stage to new legal theory that is based on allegations that are not included in their pleadings.”  

“This is particularly true for allegations of fraud, which must be pled ‘with particularity’ in order to give the other party ‘sufficient information to formulate a defense by putting [him] on notice of the conduct complained of,’” she wrote. “This alone is sufficient reason to deny Defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to this claim.”  

Biggs further found that the defendants cited no evidence supporting their assertion that Williamson actively concealed material information and that a typical enforceable contract would not create a duty to disclose his relationship with CAA, so this unenforceable agreement “certainly did not create such a duty.” 

“It would be contradictory to hold that the Agreement is void as against North Carolina public policy but nevertheless creates a duty to disclose,” Biggs wrote. “Allowing such a claim would create a backdoor for athletics agents to avoid the requirements of the UAAA and effectively enforce unenforceable contracts through tort law.”  

The ‘secret’s’ been out 

In a brief, Williamson’s attorneys, including John Wester and Fitz Barringer of Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte, wrote that uncontroverted evidence forecloses the plaintiffs’ claims regarding marketing materials.  

“The evidence belies Prime Sports’ assertion that the marketing materials are trade secrets,” the attorneys wrote. “Far from it. The summary judgment record shows they were assembled hastily, shared with abandon without efforts to protect confidentiality, and contained nothing more than publicly accessible or easily acquired information.”  

The court agreed, finding that the defendants’ allegations of trade secrets are “general and sweeping.” Where the defendants alleged that their comprehensive marketing plan, including numerous multi-million-dollar strategic branding and marketing endorsements and opportunities, constitutes a trade secret, it does not specify what information, if any, defendants consider proprietary.  

And where defendants do explicitly identify trade secrets, they do not qualify as such under the statutory definition. Biggs cites the defendants’ contention that “the First Zion Williamson” slogan is their trade secret. According to the defendants, Ford told Williamson and his parents that he should not be marketed as “the next Lebron” or “the next anyone,” but the “First Zion Williamson.” But Biggs noted that Williamson stated in interviews dating to 2017 that he is “just trying to be the first Zion.”  

“Before that, Lebron James’ marketing agent stated publicly in 2005 that ‘our focus is to make sure [James is} the first LeBron James and not the second Michael Jordan,’” Biggs wrote. “Michael Jordan, in turn, was compared to Julius Erving as ‘The Next Dr. J.’ … [T]his concept is not a trade secret as a matter of law.”  

Lawyers Weekly reached out to two attorneys for the defense, Alvin Pittman of Los Angeles and JoAnn Squillace of New York, but was unable to speak with either attorney before publication. However, court records show that defense counsel has filed a notice of appeal in the matter.  

Top Legal News

See All Top Legal News


See All Commentary