New court documents in Bret Bielema’s federal litigation with the Razorback Foundation reveal a large amount of materials recently shared by the New England Patriots in response to a subpoena.
These materials, the Foundation contend, are consistent with its theory that Bielema and the Patriots fraudulently conspired to suppress his salary. Attorneys for Bielema flatly disagree with this interpretation.
The case is likely headed to settlement. The Patriots are likely uninterested in disclosing any information about their business operations that might become public through the discovery process.
This development occurred while Bielema’s employment situation has improved. Last month, the University of Illinois hired the former Big Ten coach of the year as head coach. Bielema, 50, had been an assistant coach with the New York Giants, following coaching stints with the Patriots, Arkansas Razorbacks and Wisconsin Badgers.
From the vantagepoint of the law, Bielema hasn’t moved past his time with the Patriots. His litigation with the Foundation involves the team and head coach Bill Belichick.
While Bielema’s case has grown since it began last summer—the Foundation countersued him last September—two core, and dueling, issues persist: (1) Bielema insists the Foundation owes him $7 million on a $12 million buyout the two parties signed after Arkansas fired him in 2017; and (2) the Foundation maintains that Bielema both failed to meet a contractual obligation of “best efforts” to land a new job and conspired with Belichick and his and Belichick’s agent, Neil Cornrich, to underpay Bielema as an assistant. Per an offset provision in the buyout, Bielema could annually earn up to a range of $100,000 to $150,000 without that amount reducing the Foundation’s obligation.
According to court records obtained by Sportico, an attorney for the Patriots emailed Foundation attorneys on Dec. 18 with an offer to email documents responsive to a Razorback subpoena. The two sides agreed the documents would be labeled “attorney’s eyes only” and thus shielded from public access. The attorney then sent over 458 pages. While those pages’ contents are unknown, they included copies of emails and other correspondences. The pages were related to how Belichick and the team negotiated Bielema’s compensation.
In a Dec. 28 court filing, Foundation attorneys insisted that several of these documents support its theory of fraud—a theory that Bielema attorneys dismiss as baseless and devoid of evidence. There are apparently six documents of particular interest to the Foundation.
On that same day, Bielema attorneys delivered a letter to Foundation attorneys. The letter purportedly provided “clarifying context for certain email conversations, the significance of which requires an understanding of industry practices regarding compensation.”
One can reasonably infer that this “clarifying context” would address any emails or texts suggesting that the Patriots paid Bielema a low salary to help him avoid the offset trigger. The letter, which is described in court filings, also apparently contained a promise by Bielema attorneys that they would produce additional Bielema-Cornrich texts.
Four days later—Jan. 1—Bielema attorneys filed a court brief. They argued not one “letter, word or sentence” contained in the 458 pages supports the Foundation’s theory. Bielema attorneys also question why the Foundation has issued subpoenas seeking documents, but not testimony.
Meanwhile, the presiding judge, P.K. Holmes III, issued an order on Jan. 6 pertaining to the permissible types of document requests the Foundation can ask of Bielema and, by extension, the Patriots. Several of the Foundation’s interrogatories (a written question) pertain to the Patriots.
For instance, one demands that Bielema “identify all communications, whether orally or in writing, between You (or something acting on Your behalf) and the New England Patriots from November 1, 2017, through the present, and include in your answer, the date of each communication, the method of each communication (e.g., meeting, telephone, email, text, in person, etc.), the substance of such communication, and the persons involved in each communication.”
Bielema attorneys objected on grounds the interrogatory was overbroad and without limitation. It might also, “encompass information that the New England Patriots would consider to be highly confidential.” To that point, the famously secretive Patriots are likely concerned about how the litigation could force the disclosure of trade secrets. Judge Holmes largely agreed with Bielema’s attorneys, writing, “fully responding to such an overbroad interrogatory would be so time and resource intensive that it would be unduly burdensome and disproportionate to the needs of this case.”
The case is set for a jury trial on June 1, 2021.
Bielema’s legal argument appears empowered by the buyout’s language. While Bielema had to use best efforts to land another job and be paid a market-based salary in that job, he was under no obligation to pursue any particular job. Also, a recently fired college coach might accept a lower-paying position with the Patriots, given the team’s prominence and the impressive record of Belichick assistants advancing. Yet the Foundation may be armed with its own persuasive strategy. If, it turns out, Patriots documents support the fraud and conspiracy theory, it would not only help the Foundation prevail but could damage reputations, too.
For two reasons, the parties will probably reach a settlement before a trial occurs. First, their dispute is ultimately about money. There’s likely a dollar figure that both sides will ultimately accept as preferable to the risk of trial. Second, neither side—as well as Belichick and other possible witnesses—likely wants to testify in court (a public forum) about private employment-related activities and possible trade secrets.
(This story has been updated with details of the document exchange in the seventh paragraph.)