Judge: Lawsuits over MLB’s expulsion of two minor league teams can go to trial

A pair of minor league teams that lost their affiliation with Major League Baseball deserve a jury trial, a judge in New York State’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday. The order was a blow to MLB, which had sought to dismiss the cases entirely.

The Tri-City ValleyCats, a former Houston Astros affiliate based near Albany, N.Y., and the Norwich Sea Unicorns, once a Detroit Tigers farm club in Connecticut, sued the league in separate cases. Both teams had lost their affiliation before the 2021 season when MLB cut 40 teams from its minor league system. Combined, the two minor league teams are seeking damages north of $30 million.

The trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 13.

Among the issues that a jury would decide is whether MLB, the Tigers or the Astros are liable for what’s known as tortious interference.

When MLB dropped the total number of minor league partner teams from 160 to 120, the league reached individual deals with each of the teams that would remain in affiliated baseball. However, the minor league teams also had an arrangement between themselves called the National Association Agreement, which essentially prohibited clubs from negotiating on their own.

At issue, Judge Barry Ostrager wrote, is whether MLB “interfered with the rights of the minor league teams under the NAA and induced them to breach the NAA or face their demise.”

“When Major League Baseball created their ‘120 plan’ to eliminate 40 (teams), there was a contract among all the minor league teams that they would stick together and negotiate it as a group,” said Jim Quinn, an attorney representing the minor league teams. “But instead, Major League Baseball — knowing that these contracts exist — didn’t care, and said, ‘it’s 120 (teams) or nothing.’ They forced the other teams to violate that contract, and that’s called tortious interference with a contract.”

The Astros and Major League Baseball declined comment. The Tigers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

MLB is arguing that the teams lost the right to claim interference because they themselves negotiated for a spot in the reorganized minor league system.

Some of the minor league teams’ claims have been dismissed, but what remains is what Quinn called “the guts” of the case.

“I feel pretty good about our chances on the merits, because I can’t really figure out what their defense is,” Quinn said. “They virtually admit that they did all the things that they did. … I don’t know what they’re going to say: ‘Yeah we did all these things, but it’s OK, it was nice.’”

Asked whether the case could head toward settlement talks, Quinn said, “As of right now, we’ve got a trial date, and we’re more than happy to go forward.” Quinn said that other teams could potentially sue as well, depending on what happens in this case, noting that some minor league teams have released their claims in exchange for money.

A trial could offer the public its first extensive look at the granular details of how MLB went about reorganizing and trimming the minors.

Last month, the court denied a request from the Astros and the commissioner’s office to seal a large number of documents, including Player Development Licenses, or PDLs. Those are the contracts MLB negotiated with each of the 120 teams that it affiliated with after the reorganization.

Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, told the court in an affidavit that publicly disclosing the documents “would reveal competitively sensitive details of Defendants’ negotiation strategies, commercial interests, current business and financial arrangements, and the manner in which they approach and engage in commercial relationships.”

Ostrager didn’t find that compelling, writing: “In light of the significant public interest in this case and the presumption of transparency in judicial proceedings, the Court does not find the required ‘good cause’ to seal any of the documents at issue…”

Quinn and his firm also filed an antitrust lawsuit against MLB on behalf of four minor league teams in 2021, including both Tri-City and Norwich. The case has been dismissed multiple times because of MLB’s longstanding antitrust exemption. Quinn said Wednesday that an appeal to the Supreme Court is to be filed within two weeks.

“I think there’s a reasonable chance that the Supreme Court will take the case,” Quinn said, “and if they do, that’s a signal that they’re gonna get rid of the so-called baseball antitrust exemption.”

(Top photo of Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, along with commissioner Rob Manfred: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

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