In 1992, Burgess Sharp & Golden PLLC senior counsel Joseph A. Golden learned that he would be representing famed Michigan sports coach Bo Schembechler off of the field in a suit against the Detroit Tigers. Looking back on the case 25 years later, he recalled the details in a recent conversation with Michigan Lawyers Weekly.
What was the background surrounding the case between Bo and the Tigers?
Bo had become the athletic director at Michigan, and one of the program’s big supporters was Tom Monaghan, who at that point owned Domino’s and the Tigers.
He (Monaghan) offered Bo a job with some guarantees that were the issues of the case. One of them was that if he left the athletic director’s job to become president of the Tigers, he would give him job security for the remainder of his time until retirement in exchange for Bo leaving to be the president.
An agreement was written on a napkin. The napkin became an integral part of the case because certain things had been jotted down and taken down by a third party who had been sitting with them at the time. That became proof that there had been a verbal assurance of job security for the rest of his life in consideration for him leaving.
Monaghan sold the Tigers in 1992, how was Bo impacted by that?
Bo accepted the position with the understanding that he had that job security and that was at least a contract for a number of years until he retired, and that was going to be for the rest of his working life. That’s why he left a job where he was legendary, certainly as a football coach.
Things went south for Monaghan and he had to sell the team.
When he was in negotiations to sell to Ilitch, Bo was not a part of those conversations.
Bo called me when I was in Scotland to let me know he had been let go from the Tigers.
How did you get involved in the case?
Bo had attorneys in Ohio because he was from Ohio. His attorneys there sent him to me, because he needed an employment lawyer and this day in age, everyone is specializing.
They had apparently a list of two or three attorneys in the area who did employment law, and I apparently was the first appointment. There was somebody else in the firm that I was in who apparently had dealt with Bo’s attorneys, although not Bo, beforehand. What impact that had I don’t know.
How did the case progress from there?
When he got fired and then held a press conference indicating he had no understanding of why he got fired, we had prepared a contract claim, and at that point in time we indicated we’d rather resolve it, and of course it couldn’t be resolved at that point after the press conference, and a suit was filed.
The lawsuit was specifically against the Tigers as the employer, because when Monaghan signed on, he was a representative of what would be the corporation in an employment matter.
The case went to Michael Stacey, who denied a motion for summary judgment and thereafter the case was settled for an amount that everybody swore it would not be disclosed.
What were some difficulties along the way with the case?
The worst part of the case is that it continued when it shouldn’t have. It should’ve been promptly resolved in spite of everybody’s expectations, and I think both sides are probably at fault with regard to how they felt at the time and the reality of what should’ve happened to it.
We weren’t too far into it where it was clear that sides had been taken.
Bo didn’t need this, but the fact was that he had been wronged. Both guys were uncomfortable in that public light.
Did you have any other high-profile case experience before Bo?
No, just the opposite. It is a volume practice because there are so many people who come to you or who have some adverse employment actions taken. My practice was pretty working man’s practice. Bo was the most high-profile person I ever represented.
Did that change anything in how you approached that case?
It was another case that would be a learning experience. You take something away from every single case. The things I knew from previous practice helped me calm him down. We were a pretty good match.
When you look back on this case, what do remember most about it?
From a practice perspective, it changed my practice because people who would’ve looked at me and said, first, that’s not an attorney, and if it is, I’m not having anyone who looks like that represent me, so going from that attitude to the attitude of, if you’re good enough for Bo, you’re good enough for me.
People didn’t exclude me from consideration because of the way I looked.
This interview was republished from milawyersweekly.com