STUART, Fla. (AP) — A Florida judge appeared skeptical Tuesday to arguments made by an attorney for superstar golfer Tiger Woods' ex-girlfriend Erica Herman, who is trying to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement that would require the ongoing legal disputes between the two be decided privately by an arbitrator.
During a 45-minute hearing, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Metzger repeatedly questioned why the mandatory arbitration clause in the couple's disputed agreement wouldn't invalidate Herman's lawsuit against Woods. She even appeared to agree with Woods' attorney, J.B. Murray, that even the question of whether Herman actually signed the August 2017 document or her signature is forged should, for now, be left to an arbitrator.
Neither Herman nor Woods was present. Herman, 39, is suing both Woods, 47, and the trust that owns his $54 million Florida mansion, seeking $30 million from the latter amid unspecified allegations of sexual harassment. Forbes Magazine estimates Woods' net worth at $1.1 billion.
“Contract law tells me I look at the document and I ask, ‘Is it valid on its face?' I've got dates, I've got signatures, I've got terms,” Metzger said. Given that, she asked Herman attorney Benjamin Hodas, what choice did she have but to invalidate the lawsuit and require that Herman take the case to arbitration if she wants to pursue it further?
At the least, Hodas asked that Metzger conduct a future hearing to determine whether his client signed the document or it was forged. He acknowledged that Herman signed a nondisclosure agreement at some point, but said the one presented by Woods' attorneys may not be the true contract.
“We don't know," Hodas told Metzger. “My client cannot say for certain that is her signature and she does not recall signing this document.”
Murray called the dispute over the signature “a bit of a red herring.”
“One thing you did not hear Mr. Hodas say is that she did not sign it,” Murray said. “They are not bold enough.”
Metzger said she would issue her decision in writing, but did not say when.
Herman is suing Woods to get out of the agreement, saying she was the victim of his sexual harassment. She has also filed a separate illegal eviction lawsuit against the trust that owns the mansion.
Herman, who managed Woods’ Palm Beach County restaurant before and during the first years of their romantic relationship, argues that the nondisclosure agreement is unenforceable under a new federal law that says such contracts can be voided when sexual abuse or sexual harassment occurred.
She alleges in court documents that Woods threatened to fire her if she didn't sign a nondisclosure agreement. Hodas argues that is a type of harassment, treating one employee different that others because they have a sexual relationship.
But the sexual harassment allegation was barely mentioned during Tuesday's hearing. Metzger told Hodas she needed more information about what allegedly happened to consider it. He said he couldn't provide more information publicly in fear that he would be violating the nondisclosure agreement if it is ultimately upheld.
Murray has called those accusations “utterly meritless.”
In Herman’s lawsuit against Woods, she wants Metzger to either void the nondisclosure agreement or at least give her guidance about what she can say publicly. For example, can she discuss events that happened before their agreement or after their breakup last October? What about information she learned about Woods from others? She is also arguing that the contract covers only her work relationship with Woods, not their personal matters.
In her unlawful eviction lawsuit against the trust, she is basing her $30 million claim on how much it would cost to rent a property like Woods’ beachfront mansion north of Palm Beach for six years of residence she was allegedly promised by the golfer and then denied.
Before they dated, Woods hired Herman in 2014 to help develop and then operate the golfer’s The Woods sports bar and restaurant in nearby Jupiter — but they do not agree when their romantic relationship and cohabitation began.
Herman says in her court filings that their romantic relationship began in 2015 and that in late 2016 she moved into Woods’ nearly 30,000-square-foot (2,800-square-meter) mansion in the ritzy Hobe Sound community. She says that in 2017, Woods verbally promised she could live there at least 11 more years.
Woods, in his court documents, says their romantic relationship began in 2017, shortly before she moved in with him that August — about the time the disputed nondisclosure agreement was signed. In March 2017, Woods had placed the mansion into the Jupiter Island Irrevocable Homestead Trust, an entity he created that has only himself and his two children as beneficiaries.
Court documents filed by Woods' attorneys on Monday include an August 2017 email exchange between Herman and Christopher Hubman, the chief financial officer of Tiger Woods Ventures. Herman says she will sign the nondisclosure agreement, but expresses concern about how her romantic and professional lives are now intertwined.
“My only concern is if by chance TW does something that brings our relationship to an end, do I automatically (lose) my job?” she wrote. "I don't have any problem with what's in the document because I wouldn't go public or use anything I know to hurt him or the kids but with my whole life in his hands now I would want to have some kind of control over my future in the business.
“If something happened 5-10 years down the road I don't want to be in my 40s, heartbroken and jobless,” she wrote.
Herman says Woods pressured her to quit the job in 2020 so she could spend more time taking care of him and his children.