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Judge grants temporary restraining order in favor of Washington State, OSU against Pac-12

An attorney for the Pac-12 Conference argues in Whitman County Superior Court on Monday morning.  (courtesy)

COLFAX – Washington State and Oregon State universities won a court action Monday granting a temporary restraining order to prevent the Pac-12 Conference from meeting as a board until further ruling.

WSU and OSU will be the only remaining members of the Pac-12 Conference beginning next summer now that all the other members have announced they will play in other conferences next school year.

The two remaining schools hope to stop the other 10 from making decisions on behalf of the conference, arguing the exiting universities are “hopelessly conflicted.” WSU and OSU argued at Monday’s hearing in Whitman County Superior Court that allowing a scheduled Wednesday meeting of Pac-12 board members could let the other universities “seize control of the conference” and spell the end of a 100-year institution.

Judge Gary Libey wrote that the Pac-12 Conference Bylaws “state unambiguously” that members lose their position on the Pac-12 board if they announce their intention to leave the conference before Aug. 1, 2024.

WSU President Kirk Schulz and WSU Athletic Director Patrick Chun were in the courtroom and issued a statement after the hearing.

“We are very pleased with the court’s decision today. It has always been our view that the future of the Pac-12 should be determined by the remaining members, not by those schools that are leaving the conference,” they wrote. “We remain firmly committed to exploring all options to protect the interests of our student-athletes, coaches, and fans. We look forward to the court putting the question of governance to rest so that Washington State University and Oregon State University can make reasonable and necessary decisions regarding the future of the Pac-12 Conference.”

According to these bylaws, that member’s representative will “automatically cease to be a member of the Pac-12 Board of Directors and shall cease to have the right to vote on any matter before the Pac-12 Board of Directors.”

WSU and OSU argue those provisions leave them as the only two stakeholders with a legitimate claim to be members of the Pac-12 Board. While Libey did not decide the ultimate merits of that argument, he ruled WSU and OSU have the “clear and equitable right” to prevent unauthorized board action by the Pac-12 Board and are “likely to prevail” in their claims of control over the board.

If the Wednesday meeting was allowed to go forward, the 10 board members from exiting schools would be allowed to take actions on behalf of the conference that “irreparably harm” WSU and OSU, and they would be “difficult or impossible to reverse.”

Lawyers for the two universities argued in the hearing that those members could vote to “dissolve” the conference in its entirety and split its assets.

Because of this possibility, the court prohibited the Wednesday board meeting from taking place and ruled no other order take place until there is a preliminary hearing to determine whether the 10 exiting universities are still legitimate members of the Pac-12 Conference board of directors.

The issue of who is on the board “needs to be litigated,” Libey said in the courtroom.

“The sooner we get back to court, the better,” he said.

Commissioner response to lawsuit

Representatives of the 10 universities leaving the conference were not in the courtroom Monday morning. Rather than bring legal action to them directly, WSU and OSU sued Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff, who called for the Wednesday meeting in dispute.

Speaking on behalf of his client, attorney Mark Lambert said Kliavkoff had “not taken a side” in the dispute between the universities.

“At least 10 members contend that they retain Board membership, yet those contentions are in dispute. As such, the Conference and Commissioner Kliavkoff find themselves in the middle of a dispute among members over who constitutes the Board that is necessary to give direction on Conference Operation,” Kliavkoff’s court filings read.

The commissioner’s response to the suit also states WSU and OSU are trying to “radically revamp the make-up of the Board.”

“The status quo before the instant dispute arose involved Plaintiffs and the 10 departing members participating in Conference governance. While they claim the relief they seek is temporary, the paralysis of the conference in the meantime could lead to long-term damage to the Conference and its value in ways that Plaintiffs will regret, and all of the members will suffer in the short-term,” it reads.

Lambert argued the Wednesday board meeting needed to take place to ensure the continued functioning of the Pac-12 Conference for the current school year.

“Thousands of conference athletes compete because the conference continues functioning …,” Lambert said. “The conference needs to make decisions.”

Lambert pointed to a retention agreement on the agenda for the Wednesday meeting. If approval of that agreement was not allowed to go forward, the conference would be likely to “hemorrhage employees” and cause irreparable harm to the organization.

In his order, Libey concluded the 12 members would be allowed to “unanimously” ratify the retention agreement or other “business in the normal course,” but still not hold a meeting where other motions could be put forward.

“If members vote unanimously on any subject, then such action may be adopted,” the court order reads.

As long as any decision requires a unanimous vote, lawyers for WSU and OSU agreed to this stipulation.

Lambert also argued there was “no evidence” a motion of dissolution or a distribution of conference funds were “on the table” for the Wednesday meeting.

“What’s to stop them from making that motion?” Libey quickly responded.

The judge’s order requires an “expedited discovery” in advance of a preliminary hearing.

“Let’s put the brakes on any more meetings. Everybody’s getting equal footing,” Libey said.