The Third Circuit in Mayer v. Belichick recently affirmed dismissal of a consumer class action filed by disappointed football fans and season ticket-holders in response to the now infamous “spygate” scandal. As you may recall, this scandal arose when it was discovered that the New England Patriots were surreptitiously videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets. The NFL found that the Patriots and Belichick improperly engaged in such conduct. The named plaintiff, a Jets fan and season ticket holder, pursued the claim on behalf of Jets’ season ticket holders against the Patriots as well as the team’s head coach, Bill Belichick, and the NFL.
Among other things, plaintiff alleged that in purchasing tickets to watch the Jets that, as a matter of contract, the tickets imply that each game will be played in accordance with NFL rules and regulations as well as all applicable federal and state laws. In addition, plaintiff alleged that the defendants tortiously interfered with their contractual relations with the Jets in purchasing the tickets, they violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the New Jersey Deceptive Business Practices Act, and that they violated federal and state racketeering laws by using the NFL as an enterprise to carry out their illegal scheme. Because the Patriots and Belichick were found in other games to have illegally used video equipment, the action sought damages for Jets ticket-holders for all games played in Giants Stadium between the Jets and Patriots since Belichick became head coach in 2000. Plaintiff sought, among other things, declaratory and injunctive relief, over $61 million in actual damages, punitive and treble damages, and attorneys’ fees. The district court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim.
The issue addressed by the Third Circuit was whether plaintiff stated an actionable injury (i.e., a legally protected right or interest) arising out of the alleged dishonest videotaping program undertaken by the Patriots and Belichick. While the Court acknowledged the unique circumstances of the case, it also recognized that past cases provided the Court with certain legal principles that were relevant to this matter. In affirming the district court’s decision, the Third Circuit traced the history of how tickets to sporting and other entertainment events have been treated in the past, noting that in nearly all of them, the courts held that the ticket merely gave the fan a license to a seat from which to watch the event, but did not create a contract to present any particular kind of show or dictate the manner in which it was to presented. Because plaintiff was allowed to enter the stadium and witnessed the game between the Jets and Patriots, he suffered no cognizable injury to a legally protected right or interest.
A ruling by the Third Circuit in favor of the plaintiff could have had a dramatic impact on both courts and those in the sports and entertainment business. For example, disappointed fans potentially could have sued for a “blown call” or as a result of one team stealing a catcher’s signals that led to the loss of a game. The Third Circuit refused to countenance such a course of action that would have burdened the courts and forced these businesses to defend against such litigation.