Neither LSU nor Chavis had a good day in court yesterday. In the context of the suit, I think LSU actually came out ahead, but at the cost of real long term damage to its reputation. If you were a potential employee, would you want to deal with Joe Alleva right now?
LSU admitted that it altered a signed contract with John Chavis after he had signed it. Now, you actually can do that, people modify signed contracts all of the time, but the key is you have to give the other party notice. One party can't unilaterally alter a signed contract, or else a contract would have no meaning. While the reports are unclear on this issue, it appears that LSU didn't give Chavis any notice that it was altering a signed contract, and this is what we like to call, in legal terms, as a "gigantic no-no."
LSU lawyers quickly moved to minimize the damage, claiming that the changes were "innocent, unintentional and immaterial." Let me be the first to point out that one does not unintentionally alter a contract. This isn't even a good lie. Did an LSU employee accidentally cross out terms in the contract and write new ones, clarifying the original terms? That's not what unintentional means, y'all. You don't back out of one lie by telling another.
Now, are the changes immaterial? Possibly. LSU admits that it changed the name of the LSU President on the contract, as William Jenkins replaced John Lombardi. LSU further admits that it clarified some dates, changing the buyout dates from "between 24 months to 36 months" to "between the first day of the 36th month remaining to the last day of the 24th month remaining."
That's not exactly immaterial. Innocent? Maybe. But it is a change made to provide more clarity to an ambiguous term in the contract. That's hardly immaterial. And considering this whole lawsuit is about the buyout, and LSU changed the language of the buyout section of the contract, well, you can see how that might be a little bit of a problem.
The usual fix for an invalid clause in an otherwise valid contract is to simply carve out the offending clause. If Chavis did not agree to the alteration of the contract, then the court will ignore LSU's changes and life moves on. The parties still had a valid, enforceable contract which each party at least partially performed. If we write out these alterations, LSU's case against Chavis remains unchanged: he left early and therefore owes us the buyout. LSU's legal case against Chavis is just as strong today as it was last week, before this admission.
Still, this admission falls neatly into Chavis' theory of the case. He's been arguing, essentially, that LSU dealt with him dishonestly, so he got a different job due to the betrayal of trust. He's not admitting he breached the contract, but even if he did, LSU breached it first by its lies and underhanded dealing, forcing him to take another job if only to mitigate his damages. LSU unilaterally altering his contract without his knowledge or consent plays right into that narrative. John Chavis now has a pretty credible argument that even if he did breach his contract, that breach is excused by LSU's behavior.
Also, this just in, judges don't like being lied to. LSU had plenty of time prior to now to admit that they altered the employment contract, but they are just bringing it up now? Lawyers need to get ahead of bad facts. It's far better to tell the court your bad facts upfront, and then work to explain them away, then to try and hide the bad facts and hope they go away. Because once those bad facts come to light, and they nearly always do, then you have lost nearly all credibility with the court. Chavis is arguing that LSU is a bunch of liars. Now, the court is inclined to agree. LSU has now lied to the court, too. You don't get credit for copping to the lie this far into litigation.
Taking this outside the realm of the immediate litigation, this is a huge deal. LSU's credibility is shot. Any future negotiation with a potential coach is going to cost the school even more than normal. The negotiation starts with mistrust. If LSU was willing to alter John Chavis' contract, imagine how they will treat a brand new employee. The price for talent for LSU just went up.
And if the whole point of this litigation is to get the money that the program is owed, well, congratulations, you've likely just cost yourself any savings in losses on future contracts. Even if LSU is awarded the full $400,000 buyout with no offsets (SPOILER ALERT: they won't), LSU is now going to have to spend that $400,000 on future hires due to the damage they have done to their own reputation. Good job, fellas.
Now, it wasn't all rainbows and sunshine for John Chavis. The biggest news to come out of the case is that Chavis signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Texas A&M in December. Now, we don't know what the MOU says, and that's a pretty important point, but an MOU is a contract. John Chavis signed a contract with Texas A&M by December 31, a full month before his contract with LSU expired.
Now, it's possible the MOU states that Chavis does not become an employee of A&M until February, but if that document allows A&M to in any way direct or control Chavis' activities, then it's pretty good evidence that he was an employee of the school. If Chavis was an A&M employee on December 31, then he is almost certainly in breach of his agreement with LSU.
That's a pretty huge negative for Chavis' case. His lawyers are pretty happy they can now argue a potential breach by Chavis is excused by LSU's prior breach because it seems pretty likely they are going to have to go to that backup argument. They would rather argue that Chavis didn't breach the contract at all, but it does seem like they will be going to their secondary argument. Luckily, LSU just strengthened that argument.
Neither party had a good day, but ultimately, it's a worse day for LSU. LSU might have pulled off a tactical victory in the courtroom in regards to the MOU, but it is suffering major strategic losses. LSU is dragging its own name through the mud the longer this goes on, as the released documents regarding the Kevin Steele search came to light as well.
There will be more of those sorts of disclosures as this case goes further down the road of discovery, and as each party becomes even more antagonistic. If this is about saving money, then LSU is costing itself money in the long run by jacking up the price for coaches to deal with a university with a track record of lying and misdeeds. If this is about reputation, LSU has already lost that battle, and it will only get worse if you continue. If this is about petty revenge against Chavis for taking another job, then LSU needs to grow up and move on.
I can think of no good reason for LSU to continue down this road. For the love of God, settle this case. Every day it goes on is just another mark in the ledger against Joe Alleva. This case is a fool's errand, which makes sense because the client is a fool. Settle this case, fire Alleva, and maybe, just maybe, LSU can mitigate the damage that has been to its athletic department.