Appeals Court Sides With Commentator in Contract Dispute With Major League Baseball

May 24, 2019

A New Jersey appeals court has affirmed the judgment of a lower court, finding that the Major League Baseball (MLB) Network violated the terms of its contract with former MLB pitcher and current television commentator Mitchell Williams when it invoked the morals clause and terminated Williams’s contract. The appeals court wrote that it was “satisfied the trial judge and the jury resolved the parties’ disputes in this case fairly and soundly, and did so based on ample relevant evidence and general legal principles.”
The Network invoked the morals clause after the emergence of news reports accusing Williams of using profane language and engaging in other inappropriate conduct while he was coaching his son’s youth baseball team at a weekend tournament in Maryland. Portions of two of those games were captured on videotape. In reaction to the reports, the Network sought to have Williams sign an agreement that would, among other things, censor his use of social media, and bar him temporarily from coaching or attending youth sporting events. Williams refused to accede to those restrictions, and the Network terminated him from the remaining portion of his contract.
The Network’s decision was based on its finding that Williams engaged in “non-trivial” conduct, which brought him “into disrepute, scandal, contempt or ridicule, or which shocks, insults or offends a substantial portion [of the] group of the community or reflects unfavorably (in a non-trivial manner) on any of the parties.”
Williams sued the Network for breach of contract and also pled other theories of liability. The Network brought a counterclaim against Williams, asserting that he breached his contract’s confidentiality provision by publicizing the contract and attaching a copy of it to his complaint.
In a majority decision, a Camden County jury found the Network failed to prove Williams had actually engaged in the alleged conduct violating the morals clause. The jury accordingly awarded Williams compensation for the uncompleted term of his contract, but declined to award him damages for the Network’s failure to exercise the contract’s option year.
The Network appealed “the trial judge’s failure to award 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, meanwhile, cross-appealed the judge’s dismissal of the additional counts of his complaint beyond his breach of contract claims.
In considering their arguments, the appeals court noted that “although there is no existing published opinion in this State involving a contractual ‘morals clause’ to provide guidance, we are satisfied the trial judge and the jury resolved the parties’ disputes in this case fairly and soundly, and did so based on ample relevant evidence and general legal principles. Neither side has demonstrated the alleged errors, if any, were clearly capable of producing an unjust result.”
It added in its conclusion that “the outcome of this hard-fought lawsuit” should “not be disturbed. The trial court fairly dealt with the abundant legal and evidentiary issues presented by both sides — before, during, and after the trial. The proofs at trial provided ample substantial evidence to support the jury’s verdict, and the jury’s credibility-laden assessments deserve our deference.”
Williams v. MLB Network, Inc.; Super. Ct. N. J., App. Div.; 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 578; 3/14/19
Attorneys of Record: Peter O. Hughes argued the cause for appellant/cross-respondent (Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC, attorneys; Peter O. Hughes and Ryan T. Warden, on the briefs). Rahul Munshi (Console Mattiacci Law, LLC) of the Pennsylvania bar, admitted pro hac vice, argued the cause for respondent/cross-appellant (Console Mattiacci Law, LLC and Rahul Munshi, attorneys; Laura C. Mattiacci, on the briefs).


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