FAYETTEVILLE — Four documents that contain emails between New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick will remain under seal for now in the legal battle between the Razorback Foundation and former University of Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema.
U.S. Judge P.K. Holmes III ruled in the Patriots’ favor Tuesday, but said the question of the emails' confidentiality could be revisited at a later time. Holmes allowed the emails to be filed under seal by the Razorback Foundation as exhibits in its amended counter lawsuit against Bielema and his agent, Neil Cornrich.
Cornrich also serves as the agent for Belichick.
According to court records, the correspondence between Kraft and Belichick includes discussion of compensation for Bielema and another Patriots coach who is not identified in court filings. Text from the emails is redacted in the foundation’s amended countersuit.
Attorneys for the Patriots argued in a Feb. 23 filing the emails contain information that could hurt the Patriots competitively if disclosed publicly.
“NEP (New England Patriots) and the other 31 teams in the NFL compete aggressively with one another to attract and retain the best coaches,” attorney Caleb J. Schillinger wrote in the Feb. 23 filing. “NEP’s competitors could take advantage of the Sealed Information to lure current or prospective coaches away from NEP by using that information to offer a level of compensation or other terms of employment that, absent such information, they otherwise might not provide.”
In his opinion Tuesday, Holmes wrote the court was “not convinced that all of the information in the emails is as sensitive” as the Patriots argue, and that “concerns could be adequately addressed by additional redaction, rather than full access restriction.”
“Because the emails are merely documents exchanged in discovery at this point, the Court will extend NEP the benefit of the doubt and accept its argument that the emails should be protected in their entirety,” Holmes wrote. “If it becomes appropriate to treat the emails, or information derived therefrom, as judicial documents…the Court will revisit this question.”
Bielema sued the Razorback Foundation last June, seeking more than $7 million in unpaid buyout payments. The foundation countersued Bielema and his agent, Cornrich, seeking to retrieve more than $4.5 million in payments that were made to Bielema through January 2019.
At the heart of the dispute is whether Bielema attempted to maximize his earning potential to offset the foundation’s financial obligation to him while he worked for the Patriots as a special assistant to Belichick in 2018. That role, as well as a draft advisory role with the Patriots the same year, paid Bielema a combined $125,000, according to court records.
The foundation owed Bielema up to $11.935 million in buyout pay at the time, but that amount could have been offset after the first $150,000 Bielema was paid in 2018. The foundation stopped making payments to Bielema in January 2019, citing breach of contract.
In April 2019, the Patriots promoted Bielema to a full-time assistant coaching role that paid $250,000, and he worked for the New York Giants as an assistant coach in 2020 at a salary of $400,000, according to court records.
Bielema was hired as the University of Illinois' head coach in December, less than two weeks before his buyout period with the Razorback Foundation was set to expire. The Illinois job — Bielema's first as a head coach since he was fired by the Razorbacks at the end of the 2017 season — will pay him an annual salary of $4.2 million, according to court records.
A trial date in the case has been rescheduled for January 2022. It was initially set to begin trial in June.