By Jacob Zelmanovitz
(Jacob is an attorney specializing in commercial litigation)
As you probably know by now, ARod, or Alexander Emanuael Rodriguez (middle names are fun!), has filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball and Bud Selig in the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Here’s some questions you may have about that lawsuit, as well as some answers.
Yay, a Supreme Court Case! Wait, that was fast, aren’t there supposed to be appeals and other boring stuff first
This case is in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, but the actual top court in New York is called the Court of Appeals. What is “Supreme” about this Supreme Court it is the top level trial court in the state. Yes, that’s all counterintuitive, but knowledge of this arcana is part of how we lawyers justify ridiculous hourly fees. So if you’re waiting to hear Justice Scalia wax poetically sarcastic about baseball, settle in, you’ve got quite the wait ahead.
Why is he suing now? Why not before the arbitration started?
This is a great question. The lawsuit was filed four days into the appeal to an arbitrator of ARod’s suspension, though it could in theory have been filed quite some time ago. It is possible that the timing is a result of Rodriguez’s team being less than thrilled with how the arbitration has been going. It is also possible that some of the grounds for the suit only came to light immediately before or during the arbitration proceeding.
How can ARod sue now if there’s already an arbitration proceeding?
This is not directly about whether or not Rodriguez used PEDs or was properly suspended, which is what Rodriguez’s appeal to the arbitrator is all about. It’s about whether or not MLB acted improperly in its dealings with ARod and his alleged use of PEDs.
Instead, the complaint lists two similar wrongs that ARod claims MLB and its commissioner have committed: tortious interference with prospective business relationships and tortious interference with existing contracts.
Tortious interference? Ugh, lawyers. Plain English please.
ARod is alleging a witch hunt by MLB. Specifically, Rodriguez is claiming that MLB and Bud Selig interfered with his ability to get sponsorship deals (those are “the prospective business relationships”). While it’s not always legally wrong to convince sponsors to drop an athlete for cheating, the claim here is that the way MLB and its commissioner did so was so improper that it is now liable for the damage it caused (in other words, “tortious”). In his suit, Rodriguez claims that the defendants “willfully and maliciously” leaked details of its investigation against him to the media, knowing and intend for it to cause sponsors to drop him. The fact that the disciplinary process is supposed to make such information confidential renders the leaks a tortious act, and therefore grounds for this lawsuit.
But it’s not just about leaks. Rodriguez also claims that MLB and its commissioner acted improperly in other aspects of its disciplinary process, using dubious lawsuits to gain evidence in discovery, issuing improper subpoenas, and even intimidating and buying off witnesses who might have helped defend him in the disciplinary process.
So ARod claims that the suspension MLB is trying to impose is also a wrongful act, or tortious, in that the suspension was obtained through a malicious and unethical investigation, costing him sponsorship opportunities and his ability to fulfill his contract and play for the Yankees (that’s the “existing contract” he says was tortuously interfered with).
Why couldn’t he sue for something easy to understand, like libel or slander?
Because in a suit for libel and slander, truth is a defense. So long as a defendant was telling the truth, such a lawsuit would ultimately fail. In contrast, the fact that your leaks contained only true information is no defense to a tortious interference claim if you had previously agreed to keep that information confidential.
What happens next?
We wait. It may be months before MLB responds to the suit.
How can MLB respond?
There are basically two responses that baseball can make. One is to file an answer the complaint. Such a document addresses each fact alleged in the complaint in one of three ways, by (i) admitting that the particular alleged fact is true, (ii) denying that particular alleged fact is true, or (iii) stating that the defendants don’t know yet if it’s true or not.
The second, and perhaps more likely response, is a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Such a motion can be made for any number of reasons, including that under the CBA any dispute between Rodriguez and MLB must be heard by an arbitrator, and not taken to court. That last one would be a shame if successful because arbitration is secret, while anything filed in this lawsuit is a matter of public record.