Houston Nutt’s lawsuit against Ole Miss refiled in state court

Published 1:39 pm Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The legal spat between Houston Nutt and Ole Miss is back on.

The former Ole Miss football coach’s lawsuit against the school, its athletics foundation and the IHL board was refiled in Lafayette County Circuit Court on Wednesday morning. In the 46-page complaint, Nutt is suing for breach of contract, breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing and punitive damages for what he alleges was an intentional misinformation campaign put on by former coach Hugh Freeze and other school officials related to the extent of the role Nutt’s tenure played in the NCAA’s investigation into the football program, which Nutt’s side claims is a violation of his severance agreement.

“This language did not just prohibit Ole Miss and OMAF (Ole Miss Athletics Foundation) from making false statements that could harm Coach Nutt’s reputation as a football coach; it prohibited Ole Miss and OMAF from making any statements that could result in such reputational harm to Coach Nutt — whether true or false,” part of the complaint read.

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The point of contention between the two sides is the interpretation of Nutt’s severance agreement. The school’s representation has claimed the agreement was a directive aimed at a control group, which did not include Freeze, athletic director Ross Bjork or associate athletic director for communications Kyle Campbell, according to The Clarion Ledger. Nutt’s attorneys, Thomas Mars and Walter Morrison, argue the wording is too vague.

“The term ‘control group’ is not defined in the Severance Agreement,” part of the complaint stated. “Nor does the Severance Agreement state anything about what the Ole Miss or UMAF ‘control groups’ do, what their purpose is or what persons or positions are included in the ‘control groups.'”

The defendants have 30 days to respond to the complaint.

The original lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in July and dismissed by a United States District Judge a month later for a lack of jurisdiction, was prompted in part by what Nutt believes were false statements made by Freeze, Bjork and Campbell. Nutt accused the trio of conspiring to spread misleading information about how many of the alleged rules violations were tied to Nutt’s tenure by pushing the narrative in off-the-record phone calls with reporters.

The complaint also referenced calls made to journalists by Michael Thompson, senior associate athletics director for communications and marketing, and former deputy athletic director Stephen Ponder, who resigned in May, around the time Ole Miss received it its original Notice of Allegations in January 2016.

The complaint also claims that Brian Curtis, president and CEO of Paradigm Four Inc., served as a crisis communications consultant to Bjork with his advice and assistance including “the creation and dissemination of a false narrative that inaccurately described the extent to which the NCAA investigation was focused on Coach Nutt.”

Ole Miss is facing 21 alleged rules violations in its NCAA case, which was heard over a two-day span last month in Covington, Kentucky. Fifteen of them are Level I charges, the most serious in the eyes of the NCAA, with four tied to Nutt’s tenure. A final ruling is expected to be handed down in November.

In an effort to prove his client’s claim against Freeze, Bjork and Campbell, Mars filed an open records request for Freeze’s university-issued cell phone records, which led to the discovery of calls placed by Freeze to numbers tied to escort services. Freeze was forced to resign July 20.

The refiling came as no surprise. Mars said after the case was dismissed in federal court that it would be refiled at the state level.