In Florida, a welcoming venue for baseball antitrust cases

Credit: (Reuters) – In many U.S. courts, a lawsuit accusing a baseball league of running an illegal monopoly would be a sure loser, thanks to the unique exemption the sport enjoys from antitrust law.

Florida courts are an exemption to the exemption.

In an Orange County court, former umpire Jim Evans is slowly making progress in an antitrust challenge to how Minor League Baseball trains its new umpires. The judge ruled his case could proceed, turning down a league motion to dismiss it.

Evans, who has trained umpires since 1989, shut down his academy last year after the league started its own and uncertified his. The league cited a complaint about race relations, while Evans rejected the complaint and said a money-hungry sport saw a way to eliminate competition.

Wielding a 19-year-old ruling from the Florida Supreme Court, Evans has so far swatted away the league’s attempt to toss his suit.

“If Jim Evans was going to file this suit, he picked the right jurisdiction to file it in,” Nathaniel Grow, a University of Georgia legal business professor who has followed the case, said in an interview.

Baseball leagues and team owners are free to collude with each other in ways other businesses, including other sports, may not because of a series of three U.S. Supreme Court rulings beginning in 1922.

The rulings have long doomed most antitrust suits, such as those that would challenge baseball’s control over team moves.

But that is less true in Florida. In 1994, the state’s high court said that baseball’s immunity applied to certain unique characteristics of the sport but not to the business of baseball generally.

Antitrust experts cite only two other similar rulings, one in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in 1992 and another in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia in 1993.

Rulings in federal and state courts have gone the other way of late, siding with the expansive reading baseball owners want, but the Florida Supreme Court has never looked back.

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‘THAT’S THE LAW OF FLORIDA’

Evans chose to sue in Florida because his academy was based in nearby Kissimmee, Florida, and Minor League Baseball is based in St. Petersburg, Florida, his lawyer said.

But the favorable past ruling helps his case.

“Our Supreme Court I think correctly came to the conclusion that baseball’s judge-made antitrust exemption was limited,” said Evans’s lawyer, Chris Skambis. “That’s the law of Florida.”

Florida Circuit Judge Lisa Munyon relied on the 1994 opinion when she ruled that Evans can move forward with his suit.

“It is not within this court’s prerogative to disagree with the holdings of superior state courts,” Munyon wrote in her March 28 ruling.

Minor League Baseball had urged the judge to adopt an expansive view of the antitrust exemption favored by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida.

She declined, writing she was not required to “blindly follow the opinions of lower federal courts, when the Florida court believes the federal decisions to be poorly reasoned.”

Barring a settlement, Evans is hoping to take his case before a jury next year.

A lawyer for Minor League Baseball declined to comment.

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BECOMING AN UMPIRE

At the heart of Evans’s case are two decisions by Minor League Baseball, one to start its own training school and a second to exclude Evans from the business.

The hiring of professional baseball umpires is highly regimented, Evans argues in his suit.

The umpires who call balls and strikes in major league games generally had to spend years working minor league games, and those who officiate in the minors received training from select academies accredited by the league.

There were two academies, the Wendelstedt Umpire School and the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, until 2011 when Minor League Baseball added itself as a third.

“If you go back, Minor League Baseball has never trained their own umpires,” Evans said in an interview.

He said the competition to attract and place students as league umpires is fierce, but that more than half of the 238 umpires working in the minors attended his academy.

In February 2012, Minor League Baseball sent Evans a letter informing him it would no longer take his graduates.

As a reason, the league cited a complaint it received from a black employee of Evans’s school who said there had been offensive T-shirts at a school bowling party. In response, Evans said no one took offense to the T-shirts at the time, and that the complaint was a pretext for the league to shut down a competitor.

“You can’t just come in and, all of a sudden, in one big stroke, wipe out the history of the way umpires have been trained,” Evans said.

The case is Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring Inc v. the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues Inc and the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp, 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, No. 2012-13001.

For the plaintiff: Chris Skambis of the Skambis Law Firm and Hal Litchford of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.

For the defendants: Matthew Blickensderfer of Frost Brown Todd.