Florida State is testing the waters of sovereign immunity, and it could impact Clemson

The Seminoles have mentioned sovereign immunity for the first time in their legal battles with the ACC, and the outcome could impact if other state-funded schools, like Clemson, could pursue a similar strategy to exit the conference.
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

The court battle between Florida State and the Atlantic Coast Conference continues and each decision by the judges could indicate whether other conference schools, such as Clemson, could potentially exit in the same manner.

The most recent action is FSU’s motion to dismiss the ACC’s lawsuit against the Seminoles.

You can read a more detailed explanation from Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times, but I can summarize FSU’s argument in a few bullet points.

  • The ACC filed its lawsuit without a vote by its constituent schools, which FSU contends is required by ACC rules.
  • The lawsuit was filed before FSU’s suit against the conference, which means the actions the ACC was suing about didn’t actually exist at the time of the lawsuit, and therefore they were suing over ‘theoretical’ actions.
  • FSU claims the school president was not authorized to sign the Grant of Rights on behalf of the school and only the Board of Trustees has that authorization.

These reasons feel like Florida State grasping at straws, but another contention might be more relevant to the eventual outcome of the case.

Florida State contends the case they filed in the state of Florida should take precedence over the ACC’s case filed in the state of North Carolina because their case is centered on Florida’s sovereign immunity and state laws that should be decided in a Florida state court.

Sovereign immunity means a government can’t be sued without its consent. Since Florida State is a state-funded school, it may fall under the umbrella of the government of the state of Florida.

If a court were to decide that was the case, FSU could possibly leave the ACC, break the Grant of Rights, and be protected from any court action by the conference or its members.

This is all contingent on court cases being tried in Florida. Sovereign immunity wouldn’t necessarily protect the university against lawsuits filed in federal court or other states.

This impacts Clemson because conventional thinking is that the Tigers would also like to find a way to exit the ACC. Clemson is also a state-funded school, so the same principles of sovereign immunity could apply to any lawsuits filed in South Carolina.

The outcome of the North Carolina-filed lawsuit by the ACC against FSU could demonstrate if the conference has any recourse to challenge state-funded schools who attempt to leave the GOR before it expires.

Even if this first motion based on sovereign immunity is granted by the courts, it is simply an initial step. FSU will still be entangled in legal matters with the conference for a long time.

It will simply be an indicator whether or not the legal system will favor the notion that a state-funded school has the right to claim sovereign immunity as a reason to push lawsuits into their own state, instead of battling the conference in a state where sovereign immunity would not be a consideration.