Looking at Potential Legal Moves in the Mel Tucker vs. Michigan State Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

By: Zach Anne

Amid an incredibly successful 2021 campaign for the Michigan State Spartans football team, the University decided to invest heavily in the man leading the charge, granting head coach Mel Tucker a massive contract extension.[1] The extension was to pay out $95 million to Tucker over the next 10 years and came with a clause that required Michigan State to pay out one-hundred percent of the contract if Tucker was fired during the life of the deal, with an exemption for termination for cause.[2] On September 18, 2023, Michigan State University sent a letter to former head football coach Mel Tucker informing him that they intended to terminate his contract for cause.[3] One week later, Michigan State released a statement explaining that coach Mel Tucker has been officially terminated “for his admitted and undisputed behaviors which have brought public disrespect, contempt and ridicule upon the university; and constitute a material breach of his agreement, and moral turpitude.”[4] Following this announcement, newly terminated head coach Mel Tucker released a statement indicating that he is preparing to file a wrongful termination suit against Michigan State, setting up for what should be a fascinating legal battle that addresses numerous key concepts in both contract and employment law.[5]

One of the most contested pieces of this litigation will rest on the language of the termination “for cause” clause and how broadly or narrowly the judge decides to interpret it. This clause is in Section III of the contract and states, “The University may terminate this Agreement prior to the expiration of its term at any time, for cause, without liability to the Coach or any other penalty.”[6] However, the contract then lays out three specific categories for which the University may terminate Coach Tucker’s contract for cause. The offenses eligible for termination expressly laid out in the contract prohibited Tucker from materially breaching the agreement, being convicted of a crime (not including minor traffic offenses), or “engag[ing] in any conduct which constitutes moral turpitude or which, in the University’s reasonable judgment would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt, or ridicule upon the University.”[7]

The University’s decision to terminate Coach Tucker arises from the filing of a Title IX complaint by activist and sexual assault survivor Brenda Tracy who has dedicated herself to educating athletes on how to stop sexual violence.[8] Tracy alleged that Tucker made numerous sexual comments directed towards her during their work together, as well as pleasuring himself during a phone call with her.[9] Once the Title IX complaint was released, the University suspended Tucker while they investigated the situation further. However, this decision was made prior to the University’s official hearing regarding the complaint.[10]

At the moment, there have not been any concurrent criminal charges brought against Mel Tucker in relation to the Title IX allegation.[11] Consequently, this likely means that the University was not able to fall back on termination for a criminal conviction, something that would be almost indisputable, and must therefore rely on the vaguer “engag[ing] in conduct” clause discussed above.[12] Considering that this clause includes the phrase “the University’s reasonable judgement,” the judge in the wrongful termination suit will have to rule on whether or not the University utilized sound reasoning when making their decision to terminate Tucker’s contract.[13] Tucker will likely attempt to persuade the judge that Michigan State University’s judgement was overly cautious due to the recent athletics scandals their department has been involved in, most notably the misconduct of Larry Nassar.[14] The ex-football coach will likely claim that the firing was premature and would not have occurred at other universities, especially prior to a Title IX hearing, had they not been hyper-sensitive due to exigent circumstances surrounding MSU’s athletic department.

Conversely, Michigan State could argue that their judgment was reasonable and as such, their actions do not amount to a breach of contract or wrongful termination claim. Lawyers for the University will look to emphasize “bring public disrespect, contempt, or ridicule upon the University” to demonstrate that the judgment made by the board was reasonable to protect the University’s image.[15] This may be accomplished by introducing various articles that carry the words “Michigan State” and “sexual harassment” in the same headline to portray how the actions of Tucker brought negative connotations to the University.[16] Ultimately, this evidence can be used to develop a theory that dissociating with Tucker was necessary to avoid the potential apprehension prospective students and donors may have about attending or working with the University.

Any fan of savvy, pretrial legal work should watch this situation closely, as the work that the lawyers do over the next few months will determine how the trial will unfold. Furthermore, if Michigan State’s lawyers are able to get significant exhibits into evidence, it is possible that they may be granted summary judgment and avoid trial altogether. Tucker’s lawyers will look to survive summary judgment in hopes that the University might offer a settlement instead of prolonging and highlighting a dark period in their institution’s history.

[1] Kirkland Crawford and Chris Solari, Mel Tucker’s Michigan State Contract Extension Details: Here’s What Stands Out, Detroit Free Press (Last Updated Nov. 30, 2021, 12:54 AM), https://www.freep.com/story/sports/college/michigan-state/spartans/2021/11/29/michigan-state-football-mel-tucker-contract-extension-details-no-new-buyout/8800227002/.

[2] Id.

[3] James Parks, Michigan State Moves to Fire Football Coach Mel Tucker: What’s Next?, Sports Illustrated (Sept. 18, 2023, 4:01 PM), https://www.si.com/fannation/college/cfb-hq/ncaa-football/mel-tucker-allegations-sexual-harassment-report.

[4] Pete Thamel, Michigan State Officially Fires Coach Mel Tucker For Cause, ESPN (Sept. 27, 2023, 11:55 AM), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/38504840/sources-michigan-state-expected-fire-mel-tucker-wed.

[5] Kyle Austin, The $75 Million Legal Questions of a Potential Michigan State-Mel Tucker Split, Mlive (Sept. 12, 2023), https://www.mlive.com/spartans/2023/09/the-75-million-legal-questions-of-a-potential-michigan-state-mel-tucker-split.html.

[6] Mel Tucker Employment Agreement, Art. 3 §B ¶ 1, Michigan State University Athletics Department (2021).

[7] Id.

[8] Kenny Jacoby, Michigan State Football Coach Mel Tucker Accused of Sexually Harassing a Rape Survivor” USA Today (Last Updated Sept. 11, 2023, 10:02 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2023/09/10/michigan-state-football-coach-sexual-harassment-claim/70679703007/.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Julia Stumbaugh, Mel Tucker Preparing to file Wrongful Termination Lawsuit against MSU after firing, Bleacher Report (Sept. 28, 2023), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10091376-mel-tucker-preparing-to-file-wrongful-termination-lawsuit-against-msu-after-firing.

[12] Mel Tucker Employment Agreement, supra note 5.

[13] Id.

[14] For more on this scandal, see Rob Frehse, Zenebou Sylla and Nic Anderson, Larry Nassar survivors sue Michigan State University, alleging ‘illegal secret votes’ prevented release of 6,000 documents, CNN (July 27, 2023), https://www.cnn.com/2023/07/27/us/larry-nassar-survivors-michigan-state-lawsuit/index.html.

[15] Mel Tucker Employment Agreement, supra note 5.

[16] See Jared Ramsey, Mel Tucker Allegation Falls in long line of sexual misconduct issues at Michigan State, Detroit Free Press (Sept. 12, 2023), https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2023/09/12/mel-tucker-msu-history-timeline/70821189007/; Isabel Lohman, Nassar survivors: MSU failed again with Mel Tucker Sexual Harassment Probe, Bridge Michigan (Sept. 10, 2023), https://www.bridgemi.com/talent-education/nassar-survivors-msu-failed-again-mel-tucker-sexual-harassment-probe.