By Cecil Hurt
TUSCALOOSA - The University of Alabama has added an attorney from one of the state’s most noted law firms to assist with its appeal of penalties imposed on the football program by the NCAA.
UA President Andrew Sorensen announced Monday that Robert Cunningham, Jr. of the Mobile firm of Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder and Brown will join the UA legal team, which also includes Stan Murphy of the UA Office of Counsel and Rich Hilliard of the Indianapolis firm of Ice Miller.
"We are going to join the team and take the lead," Cunningham told The Tuscaloosa News. "This is something new and different for us and I am excited about the opportunity."
Cunningham’s firm, perhaps best known for a $3.5-billion judgment against Exxon for the state of Alabama, has insisted on representing the university without fee, or pro bono.
"The fans of Alabama can rest assured that we intend to be successful, and if we are not, we will go down kicking, screaming and fighting,’’ he said.
"Mr. Cunningham brings to the University's appeal vast experience as a very successful and effective litigation attorney," Sorensen said in a statement released by UA. "His firm has long supported the university and the state of Alabama. He and two of his partners most recently led the successful litigation of the state's interest in a case against Exxon."
Last Saturday, Cunningham met with Sorensen, UA director of athletics Mal Moore, and UA system attorneys Glenn Powell and Murphy to discuss the appeal.
Cunningham insisted on no fee.
"I don't think the people at the university really expected that, but a lot of our partners have deep roots in Alabama and strong ties to the school," Cunningham said. "My son graduated from Alabama and my firm has a strong personal commitment to this institution.
"Our firm intends to aggressively advocate the university's very sound arguments supporting, at a minimum, a reduction in the sanctions and penalties. We will devote all of the talent and resources at our disposal as we work with the university to achieve a just outcome."
Cunningham told The News that he had "an awful lot to learn" in regards to the NCAA Manual, but added that he did not think the issues in the case "would be particularly difficult to learn."
"When we began the Exxon case, I didn’t know anything about oil and gas law, but we were able to learn it," Cunningham said. "Then it all comes down to basic advocacy."
Cunningham said that several issues jumped out on his first reading of the Feb. 1 Infractions Committee report, which imposed a two-year post-season ban and hefty scholarship limitations on the UA football program.
"One thing that jumped out at me on the first reading was the fact that one of the fundamental bases for the (NCAA) decision was the repeat-violator status," Cunningham said. "The 1999 case was a self-reported incident, and the message that the current Infractions Report sends is that we are going to treat an institution who self-reports a violation in such a way that it will discourage any other institution from doing so. The NCAA ought to recognize the flaw in that thinking."
Cunningham noted that the majority of institutions that appeal NCAA sanctions do not gain relief. He said the UA case presents a difficult challenge.
"We do understand, and everyone interested in this appeal should understand, that we face a very difficult uphill battle. Nevertheless, this great university has never backed away from adversity and neither has our law firm. We relish this challenge.
Moore said he was impressed with Cunningham’s vigorous approach to the case.
"It has been our intention from the beginning to vigorously appeal this ruling, and Robert Cunningham came to the forefront," Moore said. "His addition to our current team will certainly enhance our ability in this case. Make no mistake about it, we all recognize the significance of this appeal to our program, our fans and the people of Alabama."
Cunningham’s firm received its most publicity in the state of Alabama’s 2000 suit against Exxon for skimming oil and gas royalties that belonged to the state.
The state prevailed in that case, and a circuit court jury said the international oil giant must pay the state a record $3.5 billion in damages and penalties. The award was divided into $87.7 million in compensatory damages, plus $3.42 billion in punitive damages.
Should those amounts hold up on appeal, it would mean a fee for Cunningham Bounds of some $490 million.
Cecil Hurt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org