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Comments made to reporters regarding an alleged conflict of interest between directors and officers of the Major League Umpires Association and its legal counsel were not defamatory, a Delaware County, Pa., Common Pleas judge has ruled. The disputed comments were allegedly made by the defendants, former members of the union, during a heated labor dispute over an appropriate bargaining representative for the umpires, according to court documents. At the time, the plaintiffs supported a strategy that called for the umpires to threaten to resign in order to force their grievances to be heard. The plan backfired, and 22 of the participating umpires lost their jobs. The defendants were part of a group that urged the formation of a new union. The plaintiffs claimed that they used defamatory statements to get that job done. Judge Charles B. Burr, who decided the case, Tata v. Brinkman, took the opportunity to put a few baseball puns into play in surmising that the defamation suit was based more on spite than on fact. “Because they supported the strategy which resulted in 22 veteran umpires losing their jobs, plaintiffs struck out as leaders of the union and now petition the court for relief,” Burr said in his 43-page opinion. “Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the law provides no redress for their grievances under the unique circumstances of this case, nor, as in the game of baseball itself, can it require a ‘Yer out!’ call for the election that replaced them as leaders of the Major League umpires’ labor organization.” Burr rejected the plaintiffs’ appeal from the grant of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The plaintiffs — members, officers and directors of the MLUA, the former exclusive bargaining agent for the umpires — argued that the defendants were “members of an insurgent labor group,” attempting to replace the organization with a new governing labor organization, the opinion said. That organization was, in fact, installed as the World Umpires’ Association, the opinion said. At the time of the summary judgment hearing, Burr said, the defendants were all Minor League umpires and active in the WUA. The plaintiffs claimed defendant David Phillips started an unsuccessful movement wherein the union members threatened to resign in order to call attention to their grievances during a July 14, 1999, union meeting, the opinion said. Phillips later denied being involved in or supporting such an attempt. After the failed resignation attempt, the plaintiffs argued, the defendants conspired to “destroy both the union and the reputations of the plaintiffs,” Burr said. In that end, the plaintiffs said the defendants accused the plaintiffs of taking payments from Pilot Air Freight Corp., which had a longstanding contract with Major League Baseball to transport the umpires’ equipment from city to city, in order to support attorney Richard G. Phillips and his firm as union counsel, the opinion said. Phillips was also president and CEO of Pilot, the opinion said. Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times and Murray Chass of The New York Times published reports in which the defendants implied the plaintiffs were on Pilot’s payroll, the opinion said. In addition, the plaintiffs argued, certain of the defendants made similar allegations of corruption to other umpires in an attempt to persuade them to decertify the union. The plaintiffs claimed that all the allegations of corruption were untrue. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants “knew the falsity of their deliberate lies both from their own experiences with Pilot and from disclosures made by Pilot,” court documents say. Burr said there was evidence that members of the union’s board had been on Pilot’s payroll and received Pilot’s largess in exchange for management of the union but that there was also evidence they did not think they were doing anything wrong. Richard Phillips and plaintiff Drew Coble both made published statements that board members availed themselves of the opportunity to work for Pilot for extra money, Burr said. Plaintiffs had also testified that the umpires routinely received gifts from Pilot throughout its business relationship with the union, Burr said. Because they had admittedly engaged in such conduct, Burr said, the plaintiffs’ suit “raise[d] the specters of spite and ill will.” In their motion for summary judgment, the defendants had argued that their statements were not defamatory. Contrary to the plaintiffs’ argument, the defendants argued that the words “corrupt” and “criminal” did not appear in any of the news articles at issue and that the term “conflict of interest,” which was attributable to them, is protected speech. The court had agreed. Burr said that under the law, an allegation of a conflict of interest is not actionable unless the facts it is founded on are substantially false. There was no such falsehood of the facts in this case, he said. The motion for summary judgment was granted, and the plaintiffs appealed, again arguing that the statements were defamatory. Burr said the case was similar to the facts presented to the Superior Court in the 1991 case Mathias v. Carpenter. Mathias involved a published news photograph showing a group of school directors smiling after they had just been found guilty of violating the Sunshine Law. The Superior Court found that the accompanying column explained the context in which the photo was taken and therefore the photo’s publication was not meant to portray the directors as unrepentant criminals. The court said the reader was given enough facts to assess the validity of the opinions of the column’s author. Burr said the same reasoning applied to the umpires’ case. “In like manner, the instantly published opinions regarding the conduct of ‘people’ taking money at the time they were voting on union matters, and the statements reported in the subject articles that payments from Pilot created a conflict of interest for those involved in the management of union affairs, were published with full disclosure of the facts upon which these opinions were based … ,” Burr said. “There was no express or imputed accusation of the commission of any crime. A reader of those articles, this being supplied with the facts surrounding the opinion, could decide for himself or herself whether the opinions were valid or not.”

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