A dispute between the golf star Tiger Woods and a former girlfriend about her right to live in his home must be resolved through arbitration under a nondisclosure agreement between them, a Florida judge ruled on Wednesday.
The ruling put the spectacle on a path to be handled in private — a victory for Woods, whose lawyers had contended that his nondisclosure agreement with Erica Herman, his former companion, broadly required disputes to be addressed privately through arbitration, not the court system.
Lawyers for Herman had cast doubt on the validity of the agreement, in part because they believed that some of Woods’s conduct was sexual harassment. Under a relatively new federal law, a nondisclosure agreement connected to sexual harassment can be declared void, allowing the matter to be heard in a court.
But in a decision on Wednesday, Judge Elizabeth A. Metzger of the Circuit Court in Martin County, Fla., granted Woods’s requests to stay Herman’s claims and compel arbitration, saying the claims had been “implausibly pled.”
A lawyer for Herman had argued that Woods failed to “authenticate” the N.D.A., but the judge noted that Herman did not deny that her signature was on the document, or that the N.D.A. requires disputes to be resolved through confidential arbitration.
Herman, who had worked on the development of Woods’s restaurant in Florida, also had the opportunity to “provide factual specificity for any claim relating to sexual assault or sexual harassment,” the judge, who held a hearing on the case on May 9, wrote in the decision. “However, she has not done so.”
Although the ruling, barring a successful appeal, will take the dispute out of public view, lawyers for Herman and Woods used court filings in the months leading up to the hearing to exchange sensational allegations and slights.
In Herman’s account, she went to work in Woods’s constellation of business interests in 2014 and became romantically involved with him in 2015. By the end of 2016, she said in a court filing, she had moved into a home with Woods.
About six years later, in October 2022, their relationship collapsed. According to Herman, she was told she and Woods would be taking a quick trip to the Bahamas aboard a private plane and went to an airport with him.
“But instead of boarding the plane, Mr. Woods told Ms. Herman to talk to his lawyer, and Mr. Woods left,” Herman’s lawyers wrote in a submission to the judge. “Then, Mr. Woods’s California lawyer, out of the blue, told her that she was not going anywhere, would never see Mr. Woods again, had been locked out of the house, and could not return.”
According to Herman, she and Woods had an 11-year “oral tenancy” deal, which had about five years remaining at the time of their breakup. In a filing last autumn, Herman’s lawyers estimated that she had suffered more than $30 million in damages.
But Woods’s representatives argued that the aftermath of the breakup, including any matters about Herman’s access to the home in a wealthy enclave north of West Palm Beach, should be handled in arbitration. They cited a three-page agreement dated Aug. 9, 2017, the same day a prosecutor said Woods had reached a plea deal in a case that began with a charge of driving under the influence.
The immediate legal question before Judge Metzger was not whether Herman’s interpretation of her tenancy arrangement with Woods was correct, but whether her court was the right forum for the matter to be considered.
To fortify their effort to move the dispute into a Florida courtroom, Herman’s lawyers, relying on a largely untested federal law regarding N.D.A.s, argued that Woods had engaged in sexual harassment because the agreement was tied to his personal and working relationships with Herman.
“A boss imposing different work conditions on his employee because of their sexual relationship is sexual harassment,” Herman’s lawyers wrote. Beyond the employer-employee relationship, they said, the push by a Woods-established trust to force Herman from the home the couple had shared also amounted to sexual harassment because “the landlord made the availability of her housing conditional on her having a sexual relationship with a co-tenant.”
In a filing of their own, Woods’s lawyers depicted Herman as “a jilted ex-girlfriend who wants to publicly litigate specious claims in court, rather than honor her commitment to arbitrate disputes in a confidential arbitration proceeding.”
They also denied that she was “a victim of sexual assault or abuse” and warned the court against allowing “Ms. Herman to end-run her obligation to arbitrate her disputes with Mr. Woods with implausible claims of sexual harassment.” Arbitration tangle aside, the trust, citing the length of the oral tenancy arrangement, said in a separate submission that it believed the housing agreement was not governed by a particular Florida law.
Woods has played two tournaments this year, most recently the Masters Tournament in April. He withdrew during the third round and underwent ankle surgery less than two weeks later. He has not announced when he expects to return to a competition schedule that was already severely limited after he sustained major leg injuries in a car wreck in February 2021.
Mike Ives contributed reporting.