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Sovereign immunity protects Texas from potential Chris Beard lawsuit

As Mike Leach found out when he was fired by Texas Tech, successfully suing a public university in the state requires legislative permission.

NCAA Basketball: Houston Christian at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

More than three weeks after Texas Longhorns head coach Chris Beard was arrested for felony domestic violence, the school fired him with cause on Thursday with the vice president for legal affairs telling Beard’s lawyer, “[Y]our letter this morning reveals that Mr. Beard does not understand the significance of the behavior he knows he engaged in, or the ensuing events that impair his ability to effectively lead our program. This lack of self-awareness is yet another failure of judgment that makes Mr. Beard unfit to serve as a head coach at our university.”

Beard’s lawyer, Perry Minton, fired back with a statement accusing Texas of not conducting an independent investigation nor questioning Beard or his fiance.

“I am concerned that the University of Texas has made a terrible decision against he interest of the university, based on Twitter feeds and editorials — and not the facts concerning a truly innocent man. The University has violated their agreement with the coach and we are devastated,” Minton wrote in a statement.

Even before Beard’s termination, a central question surrounding the school’s decision about the former head coach’s future was whether the university would have to defend itself from a lawsuit brought by Beard. After all, there were more than five years and $25 million left on Beard’s contract when it was voided by the with-cause termination of his employment.

But as former Texas Tech head football coach Mike Leach found out, such a lawsuit is exceptionally difficult or perhaps even virtually impossible to win in the state of Texas because of its sovereign immunity doctrine. As the University of Texas system itself explains, “The State of Texas is immune from liability and from suit with respect to most causes of action against it under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. This means that the State of Texas cannot be sued in its own courts without its legislature’s consent.”

The Texas Tort Claims Act provides waivers in certain limited circumstances like property damage, personal injury, or death, but none of them apply to Beard.

So when Leach fired a lawsuit against Texas Tech surrounding his own with-cause termination, the lawsuit was thrown out and a subsequent appeal to the Texas Supreme Court was denied when the court ruled that he could not sue the state without its permission.

Working with an Austin lobbyist, Leach was able to convince a Texas House of Representatives member to file a bill allowing Leach to sue Texas Tech. The bill never made it out of committee.

An appeal to then-Attorney General Greg Abbott to release an opinion on Leach’s ability to sue Texas Tech also failed.

Leach was left with no other option than to litigate his belief that Texas Tech owed him $2.5 million in the court of public opinion.

So unless Beard is able to convince the Texas legislature to allow him the permission to sue the university — a request also unlikely to make it to the floor for a vote — any lawsuit filed against it would be short lived and doomed to failure.