A state judge in Florida has ruled in favor of Tiger Woods in his public dispute against his ex-girlfriend, ordering the matter to be resolved in private arbitration after it spilled into public court with allegations of sexual harassment and a messy breakup between the two in October.
Judge Elizabeth Metzger issued the ruling late Wednesday, handing the famed golfer a victory in his quest to keep his private conflict with Erica Herman out of the public eye.
“The parties are ordered to submit this action to arbitration,” Metzger ruled. “Pursuant to applicable law, this case is stayed pending completion of arbitration. The parties shall advise the Court once arbitration has been completed. The Clerk of the Court shall administratively close this case.”
What was this about?
The issue at hand was about whether this dispute between these two former lovers should be resolved privately in arbitration under terms of the nondisclosure agreement (NDA) that Woods’ attorney said they signed in 2017. But the larger dispute started with their breakup in October, when Herman said Woods arranged to kick her out of his house in violation of an oral tenancy agreement she said she had to keep living there for several more years.
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In response to her ouster from the home, Herman sued the trust that Woods established for that house, claiming more than $30 million in damages. This led Woods to try to steer the dispute into private arbitration pursuant to the terms of the NDA.
The dispute got even uglier after that. In March, Herman filed this lawsuit against Woods to challenge that NDA and have the court declare it invalid. Her attorney even cited new federal laws in which NDAs and forced arbitration agreements don’t apply in disputes involving sexual harassment. Established in 2022, such laws were designed to eliminate the use of NDAs and private arbitration as a way for sexual predators to avoid public accountability.
In a court filing dated May 5, her attorney also said Herman didn’t even recall signing the NDA in question. The judge didn’t buy it, however.
“Importantly, Herman has not ‘denied’ that her signature is on the NDA,” the judge ruled. “Herman additionally has not ‘denied’ that the clear terms of the NDA require the resolution of her disputes, claims or controversies with Woods via binding, confidential arbitration.”
What was her sexual harassment case?
Herman didn’t get into any detail about it until May 5, when her attorney filed a court document that said Woods pursued a sexual relationship with her when she was his employee at his restaurant and then forced her to sign an NDA about it – or be fired from her job if she did not. Herman worked at his restaurant, The Woods, in Jupiter, Florida, until she resigned in 2020.
At a court hearing in Stuart, Florida, May 9, Metzger asked Herman’s attorney, Benjamin Hodas, to clarify this part of his case. But Hodas declined to go into further detail, saying it might violate the disputed NDA, which required Herman to keep her private life with Woods confidential.
Hodas instead wanted the court to provide more clarity on what more he could reveal about this issue under the law without violating the disputed NDA.
“There are issues we have not filed with the court yet, facts, that involve the sexual harassment prong of the EFAA,” Hodas said, referring to the federal law known as the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act. “Unfortunately, because of this document (the NDA), we’ve just been very careful on what allegations we make to the court, that we put in writing because, given the broad scope, at least on its face, of the purported (NDA), we don’t want to run afoul of any of those provisions.”
But the judge said Herman and her attorney didn’t sufficiently make their case on the sexual harassment issue.
“Herman has had the opportunity (to) provide factual specificity for any claim relating to sexual assault or sexual harassment,” the judge ruled. “However, she has not done so. Additionally, at no time has Herman’s counsel requested an opportunity to file a second amended complaint to include additional allegations. Therefore, Herman’s implausibly pled claims do not permit this Court to find that the EFFA is applicable.”
What was Woods’ response?
His attorney, J.B. Murray, said the NDA was “valid on its face” and previously called Herman a “jilted ex-girlfriend” making meritless claims. He told the judge May 9 that Herman didn’t go through the necessary procedural steps to make a formal sexual harassment claim under federal law and instead was making an “end run” around them.
The judge agreed.
“Herman has not pursued any claims for sexual assault or sexual harassment against Defendant,” the judge ruled. “She has solely pursued a declaratory judgment action and has only made vague and threadbare references to behaviors or actions she contends constitute sexual harassment within her response filed on May 5, 2023.”
In the hearing May 9, Herman’s attorney didn’t discuss the sexual harassment part of his case until prompted by the judge with less than 10 minutes left in the 45-minute proceeding. Prior to that, he spent much of the hearing questioning the validity of the NDA and said he wanted an evidentiary hearing to get to the bottom of that issue.
But the judge appeared skeptical about that part of his case. After months of court filings, it wasn’t until May 5 that Hodas made the argument that Herman didn’t recall signing the NDA in question. That specific allegation was not mentioned in her lawsuit challenging the NDA.
“Herman’s counsel’s attempt to equivocally allege that Herman cannot remember signing the NDA or cannot say ‘for certain’ that she did, does not create a disputed issue of fact requiring an evidentiary hearing,” the judge ruled. “Herman has not met her burden to dispute the existence of the NDA.”
Contributing: Melissa Holsman, TCPalm
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: email@example.com