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50 Years of Twins Litigation Lore

Play Ball: 50 Years of Twins Litigation Lore

The opening of a new stadium and the onset of the sixth decade of Twins baseball in Minnesota provides the occasion to reflect on some highlights and occasional lowlights of Twins litigation lore.

The Minnesota Twins baseball team will open its 50th season of baseball this month.  As the club begins its 2010 season on Monday, April 12, in its new park—Target Field, in the warehouse district of downtown Minneapolis—the squad will look back at its successes and failures and hope that there are more of the former than the latter in the years ahead.

The peaks and valleys that have characterized Twins baseball over the past five decades parallel the roller coaster ride of litigation in which the team has been involved, directly or indirectly, since the franchise moved here from Washington, D.C. in 1961.

The opening of the new stadium, and the start of the team’s sixth decade of baseball, provides an opportune time to look back at some of the highlights and occasional lowlights in Twins litigation lore.

“Contraction” Cases

The most significant litigation over the past 50 years unquestionably was the Metrodome lease case which guaranteed the Twins’ existence after the club was tottering on the brink of extinction at the beginning of this millennium.  In 2002, financially challenged Major League Baseball (MLB) was considering eliminating at least two teams, under the rubric of “contraction.”  The triage would have included the Twins, except for litigation brought by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns and operates the Twins’ Metrodome home. The commission sued the Twins and Major League Baseball for an injunction to require the team to honor the remaining year of its lease.  Hennepin County District Court Judge Harry Crump granted the injunction because of the “irreparable harm” that would result if the Twins exited early and the “public interest” in assuring that the team played out the final year of the lease.  The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, in Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission v. the Twins Partnership,1 holding that Judge Crump properly applied the “five-factors” test under Dahlberg Bros. v. Ford Motor Company.2

The appellate tribunal held that the trial judge correctly found that there was a “substantial likelihood that the [c]ommission would prevail on the merits.”  Specific performance, requiring the Twins to play at the Metrodome, was supported by the “plain language” of the lease, which authorized “any remedy allowed by law or equity.”  The contention by the Twins that the law does not favor “a government mandate for continued operation of a private enterprise” was outweighed by the public financing that went into the Metrodome, which is “operated for the benefit of the public.”  The supreme court declined to reverse the ruling, leaving the conjecture intact indefinitely.  As a result, Major League Baseball agreed not to eliminate the Twins team for three years.  The club played in the Metrodome for the rest of the decade, giving it enough time to work out the arrangements for new legislation and the new stadium opening this spring, saving the Twins and Major League Baseball for this community.

But the appellate court ruling upholding the lower court injunction did not end all of the litigation.  An ancillary case brought by the Star Tribune newspaper and other media seeking to intervene and modify a protective order seeking access to various documents produced in the case was rejected in Star Tribune v. Minnesota Twins Partnership.3

The effort to obtain access to discovery documents exchanged by the parties in the litigation was rebuffed under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, common law, and the 1st Amendment.  Affirming another ruling of Judge Crump, the appellate court held that because the media “did not have an interest” relating to the discovery materials in the case or financial information filed under seal, they were not allowed to intervene in the underlying proceeding.

Antitrust Actions

The contraction calumny followed short-lived litigation brought by the Minnesota Attorney General, looking into potential antitrust implications of the Twins’ arrangement with MLB.  The AG’s inquiry into antitrust issues was squelched by the state supreme court in Minnesota Twins Partnership v. State of Minnesota.4 The court, with one recusal, unanimously ruled that the Twins did not have to respond to the investigation because the sport is not subject to federal and state antitrust laws.  It relied upon the oft-criticized but never repudiated rulings of the Supreme Court holding the game to be immune from antitrust legislation.5

Antitrust challenges were also rejected in two prior cases involving the Twins and the Metrodome. In Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission,6 addressing a certified question from the 8th Circuit, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the stadium commission was entitled to allow the manufacturer of the Metrodome scoreboard to negotiate exclusive rights to advertising in exchange for the manufacturer providing the scoreboard at no cost.  Constitutional claims relating to the exclusivity arrangement were subsequently rejected by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.7  The 8th Circuit also rejected a challenge to a joint arrangement between the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota North Stars hockey team to market their telecast rights jointly in Midwest Communications Inc. v. Minnesota Twins Inc.,8 finding that the arrangement did not constitute an “antitrust injury” to WCCO television, which challenged the joint venture.

Baseball Business

Over the years the Twins have periodically suffered the shrieks of those who point out that baseball, at least at the professional level, is more a business than a sport.  The case law of the business of baseball even antedates the Twins’ presence here.

Long before the Metrodome was ever conceived, a new stadium was envisioned a few miles outside of downtown Minneapolis.  Planned to rise at the intersection of then Highway 12 (now Highway 394) and Highway 100 in St. Louis Park in the mid-1950s, the ball park proposal was part of an attempt to lure the then New York Giants to relocate to the Twin Cities.  The land was set aside for the proposed stadium and encumbered by a covenant restricting the sale of food or liquor on the property except in connection with baseball games or other recreational events.

Two decades later, long after the Giants had bypassed Minnesota and moved to San Francisco, a successor owner of the property sought to remove the restriction on the sale of food and liquor in order to construct restaurants and bars in the area, where they now proliferate.  In Matter of Turners Crossroad Development Co.,9 the Minnesota Supreme Court struck the restraints on grounds that the “covenant has no further value and cannot be enforced” by the original purpose.

The Metrodome itself, which the Twins have now left, has been the source of its share of litigation.  In Lifleau v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission,10 the court upheld the statute creating the Metropolitan Sports Commission which constructed the Metrodome.  The court ruled that the law, which imposes a 2 percent on-sale liquor tax, constitutes a permissible “public purpose in light of the important part that professional sports plays in our social life.”  Other litigation efforts to doom the Dome failed, too, in ensuing years.11

Tax topics also have been litigated in baseball-related lawsuits in Minnesota.  In Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission v. County of Hennepin,12 the court held that a state statute exempting from property taxation space in the Metrodome leased by the commission to the Twins and Vikings did not violate equal protection or the “single subject” clause of the Minnesota state constitution.  The court deemed the use of the facility “inherently and functionally limited to two major occupants,” the Twins and Vikings.

The Twins failed to convince the tax court that its novelty items should be exempt from the Minnesota sales and use tax.  In Minnesota Twins Partnership v. Commissioner of Revenue,13 the tax court rejected the Twins’ contention that novelty items that are distributed to fans who pay taxable admission charges constituted “purchase for resale” and even not taxable to the Twins because they were given without charge to fans who bought tickets for the games.  The court held that the items were subject to the sales and use tax because the Twins “did not resell the ticket stock and novelty items to game attendees, but instead gave the items away.”

Ballplayers’ Brouhahas

Twins players have had their share of legal disputes, ranging from manager Billy Martin punching out pitcher Dave Boswell in 1969 to Martin getting into a fight with a marshmallow salesman at a bar along the Bloomington 494 strip a few years later while managing an opponent of the Twins. But the pugnacious Martin isn’t the only Twin personality involved in legal brouhahas.

In Uhlaender v. Hendricksen,14 the U.S. District Court upheld the “proprietary interest” of major league baseball players in their identities and sporting accomplishments.  The case, brought in the name of Ted Uhlaender, a solid Twins centerfielder, sought to enjoin a manufacturer of a “scientific” baseball board game from using players’ names and statistical records without payment of royalty or licensing fees to the players.

Federal Judge Phillip Neville agreed with the players, holding that a player’s “name, likeness, statistics, and other personal characteristics, is the fruit of his labors and is a type of property” that is entitled to protection from unauthorized commercial use by others.  The court rejected the claim of an unlawful antitrust conspiracy by the ballplayers’ trade association in demanding royalty fees for use of the players’ names and likenesses.  The case fueled the development of the now-established right of publicity for celebrities, entertainers, and other well-known personages.

Once a ballplayer, always a ballplayer, in the eyes of the law.  In Marshall v. Marshall,15 former Minnesota Twins’ ace relief pitcher Mike Marshall and his wife disputed whether his deferred compensation plan for major league baseball constituted marital property for purposes of their marital dissolution.  The wife had agreed to waive any rights to the ballplayer’s income after their separation early in 1981, and the ex-Twin claimed that this post-separation deferred compensation constituted “income,” and thus was covered by the waiver.

The court of appeals agreed with the former reliever’s spouse, viewing the deferred compensation as “more analogous to a pension plan than to income,” and it affirmed the lower court’s equal distribution of the proceeds to the former pitcher and his wife, notwithstanding her prior waiver.

Dome Defects

The roof of the Dome has collapsed twice during the Twins seasons, prompting lawsuits by the commission and its insurers against parties involved in constructing the Dome, including the company that provided management services and other construction participants.  The Hennepin County District Court ruled in favor of the construction management company regarding the two roof collapses and ordered the commission to reimburse the legal expenses incurred in litigation, pursuant to a contractual indemnification provision.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed in Century Indemnity Co. v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission,16 ruling that the trial court erred in finding the indemnification agreement to be unambiguous.  The provision of the contract requiring the commission to reimburse the construction manager “for legal expenses and suits relating to the Project” did not constitute “a sweeping indemnity clause.”  The clause refers to “legal services necessary to the project”;  the clause properly means that the commission would provide legal services necessary to construction of the Dome, but that “such services do not include funding (the construction manager) when there is litigation between” the commission and the construction manager.  Therefore, the commission was not liable for any of the legal expenses incurred by the construction manager in the construction-related litigation with the commission and its insurers.

Another defect, leading to the death of a utility repair worker at the Dome, ended unfavorably for the decedent’s widow in Graves v. McConnell,17 The widow of an employee of the company that supplied steam for heating buildings in downtown Minneapolis brought suit after high-pressure steam, released into a connecting facility where employees were working near the Dome, burned and killed two crew members, one of them her husband.

The widow sued the plant operator on grounds that he was grossly negligent in checking the whereabouts of the crew after they had serviced a steam outage at the Metrodome.  The plant operator authorized release of steam into an interconnection because he thought the crew had left the area after completing repairs at the Metrodome when, in fact, they were still in the vicinity and were burned by the high-pressure release.

Affirming a ruling of the Hennepin County District Court, the appellate court upheld dismissal of the lawsuit.  The claimant had recovered benefits under the worker’s compensation law and was now suing a coemployee.  Coemployees are generally “immune from liability” unless the coemployee had a “personal duty toward the employee and acted with gross negligence.”  The plant operator was engaged in “general administrative responsibility,” which did not “translate … into a personal duty” owed to the deceased member of the repair crew.

A claimant injured by a vacuum machine vehicle used to clean the Metrodome also lost a negligence claim in Alexander v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission,18  A Hennepin County jury found that there was no negligence by the vehicle driver or management of the Metrodome, and a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) for a new trial was denied.

The appellate court affirmed, noting that the record did not reflect any “lack of reasonable care by the driver of the machine or by the management of the Metrodome.”  Since there was “no showing … that the driver of the vacuum machine did not use reasonable care,” the jury properly determined that there was no negligence.  It was the claimant’s obligation to prove negligence; the Metrodome “did not have to prove that it was not negligent.”

A burst of summer wind that knocked over a woman leaving a Minnesota Twins baseball game gave rise to an actionable claim in Rebischke v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission,19 The case was brought by an elderly woman who fell face first into a turnstile as she was exiting the Metrodome and was knocked over by a “wind effect,” which arose when a gust flowed through doors at the stadium.  A trial court held that the stadium commission was not entitled to official immunity, which covers officials engaged in discretionary decision making involving professional judgment.  But action deemed “ministerial” is not subject to immunity because it is not clothed with discretion.

The issue, therefore, was whether the decision by the operating technician to allow the doors to open with the high static air pressure was discretionary (and subject to immunity) or ministerial (and not protected by immunity).  The record reflected disputed facts regarding the “nature of the operating technician’s conduct,” which precluded upholding the trial court judge’s ruling that allowing the doors to open by static pressure was a ministerial act as a matter of law.
There also were unresolved questions regarding the amount of static pressure that existed at the time of the accident.  Accordingly, the case was remanded to flesh out the immunity issue.

Criminal Capers

The Twins and their surroundings also have been the source of their share of criminal wrongdoing.  In Schreiber v. Commissioner of Revenue,20 the tax court upheld a ruling of the commissioner of revenue assessing a controlled substance tax and penalty of $440,000 against a man found in possession of 1,100 grams of cocaine. At the apprehension, the cocaine was found in a man’s suitcase upon his return from a Las Vegas trip, which he had arranged with a friend while attending a baseball game at the Metrodome.

The man and his wife were planning to go to Las Vegas to pick up the cocaine.  After making telephone calls from the stadium, the man indicated that his wife could not accompany him and asked his friend to do so.  The drugs were picked up in Las Vegas, and brought back to the Twin Cities, where they were apprehended.
The taxpayer, who was the drug dealer and was incarcerated for the offense, was subject to the tax, notwithstanding the claims that it was his companion who was carrying them.  Both parties pointed fingers at the other and disclaimed knowledge of the drugs.  But most of the items in the suitcase belonged to the taxpayer, who alone had keys to it.  Because he was “either in actual or in constructive possession of the drugs,” he was liable for the controlled substance tax stemming from the arrangements made initially at the Metrodome.

The imposition of two concurrent sentences for aggravated robbery and assault stemming from an attack near the Metrodome was disallowed in State v. Norregaard,21 The defendant was convicted of aggravated robbery and third-degree assault.  The Hennepin County District Court imposed and stayed concurrent sentences of 49 and 21 weeks and the appellate court affirmed.

But the supreme court, upholding the convictions, modified the sentence.  Because both charges arose out of the same incident, multiple sentences are impermissible under Minn. Stat. §609.035, which proscribes consecutive sentences for multiple offenses that are part of a “single behavioral incident.”  Therefore, the “double punishment” was impermissible and the “lesser” of the two sentences was vacated.

Similar to other sports, baseball has zealous fans who enjoy betting on the sport and some entrepreneurs who do it for a living.  In State v. Fackler,22 the court reversed dismissal of a charge of illegal gambling on baseball games, including the 1991 World Series involving the Twins. The lower court had suppressed evidence that was obtained through wiretapping home telephone lines where the gambling took place, which the supreme court deemed to be permissible without a warrant but warned that in “a different case and different circumstances, the result may well be otherwise.”

Twins Terminations

As the Twins club embarks on its sixth decade in a spanking new facility, its members likely hope that their victories—and even losses—in the national pastime take place on the field, not in the courtroom.  But it’s probably inevitable that Minnesota baseball’s long litigation legacy will be extended by new cases and controversies. Lawsuits are a pastime that, like baseball, is not past its time. Play Ball!

Notes
1 638 N.W.2d 214 (Minn. App. 2002), rev. denied (Minn. 02/04/02).
2 272 Minn. 264.137 N.W.2d 314 (1965).
3 659 N.W. 2d 287 (Minn. App. 2003).
4 592 N.W.2d 847 (Minn. 1999).
5 Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc., v. National League of Prof’l. Baseball Clubs, Inc., 259 U.S. 200 (1922).  This case was grudgingly reaffirmed by the high court in Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972), written by Minnesota’s own Harry Blackmun.
6 381 N.W.2d 842 (Minn. 1986).
7 Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, 797 F.2d 552 (8th Cir. 1986).
8 779 F.2d 444 (8th Cir. 1995).
9 277 N.W.2d 364 (Minn. 1979).
10 270 N.W.2d 749 (Minn. 1978).
11 See Eakman v. Brutger, 285 N.W.2d 95 (Minn. 1979) (injunction against constructing Metrodome denied); Minnesota Vikings Football Club v. Metropolitan Council, 289 N.W.2d 426 (1979) (upholding construction of the Metrodome and lease with Twins which included “escape clause” if average attendance falls below 1.4 million for three consecutive years); Davies v. City of Minneapolis, 316 N.W.2d 498 (Minn. 1982) (upholding the liquor tax as “important security provision” underlying the sale of $55 million dollars in revenue bonds used to finance the stadium).
12 478 N.W.2d 487 (Minn. 1991).
13 587 N.W.2d 287 (1997).
14 316 F.Supp. 1277 (D. Minn. 1970).
15 350 N.W.2d 463 (Minn. App. 1984).
16 1993 WL 35930 (Minn. App. 1993), rev. denied, (Minn. 04/07/93).
17 2000 WL 719753 (Minn. App. 2000) (unpublished).
18 1988 WL 51746 (Minn. App. 1988) (unpublished) rev. denied (Minn. 07/28/88).
19 2007 WL 2034427 (Minn. App. 2007) (unpublished).
20 1991 WL 148966 (Minn. T.C. 1991).
21 384 N.W.2d 449 (Minn. App. 1986), rev. granted (Minn. 03/14/86).
22 503 N.W.2d 783 (Minn. 1993).

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the law firm of Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, PA, in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  He is certified as a Civil Trial Specialist by the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) and represents employers and employees in a variety of workplace-related matters.

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