COLUMBIA - A University of South Carolina donor who became entitled to preferred seating at sporting events when he agreed to support USC cannot be forced to pay a seat license fee that was established years later, the state's highest court ruled Wednesday.
The case involves a member of the university's Gamecock Club, a booster group that provides millions of dollars in scholarships and support to hundreds of Gamecock athletes. The university declined to comment on the ruling, which could have implications for more of the organization's 16,800 members.
In 1990, Gamecock fan George M. Lee III upped his Gamecock Club participation to the Lifetime Full Scholarship Level, which, according to court papers, ensured him of preferred seating assignments at basketball and football games.
As part of that membership, Lee named the university as beneficiary of a $100,000 life insurance policy. Along with the Gamecock Club, he also signed a memorandum of agreement requiring him to pay annual premiums on the policy. Lee also later agreed to pay $500 annually to maintain his membership level and associated benefits.
In 2008, the university opted not to raise ticket prices but instead instituted the "Yearly Equitable Seating" program, requiring Gamecock Club members to purchase a seat license before being able to buy tickets. Under that new construct, the court noted, the Club told Lee he had to pay $325 for each of his eight season football tickets - in addition to each ticket's purchase price - to keep the seats.
Lee paid the fee under protest but sued the school, saying that his 1990 agreement allowed him the opportunity to buy basketball and football tickets and that he shouldn't be subject to licensing fees that came into effect after that date.
A trial court ruled that Lee's agreement with the school was "unambiguous on its face" and still gave Lee the "opportunity to purchase tickets," saying he was still required to pay the seat license fees.
But the Supreme Court found that the university breached its deal with Lee when it required him to pay the licensing fees to retain his opportunity to buy tickets.
"As long as Lee performs his contractual obligations, the University must provide him with the 'opportunity to purchase' season tickets to University athletic events as described in the Agreement," the court ruled. "Thus, by requiring Lee to pay the seat license fee before purchasing season tickets, the University has attempted to impose an additional term that the parties did not agree upon."
The agreement with Lee, the court noted, would even permit the university to raise ticket prices, just not impose additional fees before he could buy those tickets.
In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Costa Pleicones said he felt the agreement still allowed Lee to buy tickets but did nothing to exclude him from being subject to the seat licensing fees.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP