Mitchell Steven Williams, former relief pitcher in Major League Baseball. Photo: phillymads63 via Wikimedia Commons

A New Jersey appeals court has upheld the $1.5 million verdict awarded to former professional baseball player Mitch Williams in a breach of contract dispute with MLB Network.

The appeals court found that a Camden County judge and jury “fairly and soundly” resolved Williams’ lawsuit challenging his firing for violation of a morals clause in his broadcast contract, and that it found nothing to show that any errors during trial were “clearly capable of producing an unjust result.”

MLB Network fired Williams after a sports website reported that he was thrown out of his son’s youth baseball tournament for hurling profanity and abuse at umpires. Williams sued the network, and the jury awarded Williams $1,565,333 after an 11-day trial before Superior Court Judge Michael Kassel in June 2017.

Williams’ suit also brought defamation claims against Gawker Media, which operated a sports-themed website called Deadspin. That site is now owned by Univision. Gawker and Williams reached a confidential settlement in 2015 over his claims that Deadspin defamed him with articles accusing him of misconduct at his son’s baseball games, according to court documents.

MLB Network appealed Kassel’s failure to grant it judgment as a matter of law, the judge’s dismissal of its counterclaim, and various evidentiary rulings that allegedly skewed the jury’s consideration. Williams cross-appealed the judge’s dismissal of the additional counts of his complaint beyond his breach of contract claims. But Judges Jack Sabatino, Michael Haas and Stephanie Ann Mitterhoff rejected the appeal and the cross-appeal.

Although no published opinions in the state offer guidance on interpreting a contractual “morals clause,” the appeals court said Kassel and the jury ruled “based on ample relevant evidence and general legal principles.”

MLB Network appealed Kassel’s failure to grant it judgment as a matter of law. The appeals court said the breach of contract claim brought by Williams “was clearly viable.” The crux of the dispute was whether Williams, by his behavior at the baseball tournament, violated the morals clause in his contract, the appeals court said. The trial judge correctly found that this issue involved “hotly disputed genuine issues of material fact,” which justified his decision to deny summary judgement, the appeals court said.

MLB Network also appealed the trial judge’s dismissal of its counterclaim alleging that Williams breached the confidentiality provision of his employment contract by attaching it to his complaint. The appeals court said it would not address whether the objective of secrecy is legally enforceable or consistent with public policy. Presuming for the sake of discussion that the confidentiality provision was generally enforceable, the appeals court said the “context of this contract litigation in a public forum bears heavily upon the analysis.”

Williams’ employment contract “inevitably would have been made part of the public record even if Williams had not attached the document to his complaint.” The network failed to demonstrate that a serious injury would result from publication of the contract, and any harm resulting from its dissemination would be speculative, the panel said.

The appeals court rejected MLB Network’s challenge to various evidentiary rulings made by the trial judge. But the panel said it would not set aside a civil trial judge’s evidentiary rulings or exclude evidence unless the appellant demonstrates the judge abused his discretion. Here, finding in the record a number of evidentiary rulings that went against the plaintiff, “it is plain that the trial judge’s evidentiary rulings were not skewed on the whole against the network,” the panel said.

Williams, whose nickname is “Wild Thing,” ended his professional baseball career in 1997 after playing for six teams in 11 years. His career included stints with the Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros, California Angels and Kansas City Royals. He was hired by MLB Network in 2009 as a studio analyst. That job paid $650,000 in 2015, $625,000 in 2014 and $575,000 in 2013, the suit states.

Williams was represented by Rahul Munshi of Console Mattiacci in Philadelphia. MLB Network was represented by Peter Hughes of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. Neither attorney responded to a request for comment.

MLB Network spokesman Lou Barricelli said in a statement, “We are aware of the decision and are reviewing the opinion and our available options.”