With nearly $24 million hanging in the balance, it’s no surprise that XFL owner Vince McMahon fired XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck for cause. It’s also no surprise that Luck has sued for the money he believes he’s owed.
And it’s no surprise that McMahon has come up with three reasons for terminating Luck’s contract in a way that cuts off Luck’s ongoing salary.
The fight will come down to this question: Will a jury believe that McMahon genuinely fired Luck for the stated reasons (and are the reasons truly amount to “cause”), or will the jury decide that the stated reasons are pretextual? Which is a polite way of saying it’s all a lie, concocted by McMahon in order to avoid $23.8 million in liability to Luck at a time when: (1) McMahon no longer has any need for Luck’s services; and (2) McMahon wants to sell the league to someone else, presumably without the burden of paying Luck so much money.
To his credit, McMahon isn’t relying on a flimsy, phony technicality, like claiming for example that he never actually signed Luck’s contract (even though McMahon otherwise honored its terms) and that without a contract actually signed by McMahon (even if his lawyers drafted the thing), Luck could be fired at any time. But this doesn’t mean that the three reasons articulated in court papers by McMahon are true, and Luck’s lawyers will attack the credibility of the three stated reasons for firing Luck and not paying him.
First, McMahon claims that Luck used an XFL phone for personal reasons. Given that the days of long-distance charges have long since ended, who cares if someone uses a company cell phone for personal reasons? Unless it’s creating a tangible and significant expense to the company that otherwise would come from the employee’s pocket, it comes off as a weak and petty effort to over-lawyer the defense.
Second, McMahon claims that Luck hired receiver Antonio Calloway in defiance of XFL policy that makes players with off-field misconduct ineligible for employment. Much of this issue will hinge on the actual policy, as crafted and as applied by the XFL. But there’s another issue that McMahon will have to explain: If Luck engaged in such a clear and obvious act of defiance, why wasn’t he fired then and there? At a minimum, McMahon will need to show that he made an issue of the situation at the time it happened, so that it isn’t part of a predictable, kitchen-sink effort to dump Luck and to not pay him once the XFL crashed and burned.
Third, McMahon claims that Luck essentially checked out when the pandemic began, and that if Luck had remained engaged the league may have survived. While it’s possible that Luck, while dealing with an unprecedented public-health crisis that turned the world upside down, may have paid less attention to a professional pursuit that had shut down business operations and that by all appearances was careening toward oblivion, McMahon will have to convince a jury that, if Luck hadn’t abandoned his post, the XFL would have survived.
Again, it’s worth making the argument, given the money involved — and given that Luck’s maximum recovery may be the amount of money McMahon owes him. If McMahon can articulate a basis for firing Luck that passes the preliminary smell test (and it’s a low bar), McMahon can tread water through the litigation and eventually settle the case for 50 or 60 or 70 cents on the dollar, if Luck will accept it.
Luck may be inclined to send a message to the XFL and to anyone else with whom he is or may be doing business that this won’t cut it, that he’ll fight for every penny he’s rightfully, fairly, and legally owed. And if he can come up with a legitimate claim that would increase McMahon’s worst-case scenario beyond the $23.8 million (plus the legal fees McMahon will incur to defend the case to conclusion), maybe McMahon will realize that his best move will be to cut the check and move on.
Regardless, this is a fight that Luck had to launch and that McMahon had to defend. But if, however, McMahon is simply trying to come up with anything he can to avoid doing the right thing, the proper outcome in a court of law would be a finding that McMahon owes Luck every penny of his contract.