ALBANY, N.Y. — The long-running fight between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals over television rights fees reached New York’s highest court Tuesday when a lawyer for the Orioles argued a $296.8 million award for 2012-16 made by a panel of baseball executives should be thrown out and the case reheard by a different forum.
Derek L. Shaffer, a lawyer for the Nationals, told the six judges of the New York Court of Appeals they should affirm the decision, as New York Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen did in 2019 and an appellate panel did the following year. Shaffer predicted additional litigation between the teams in a dispute that could hold up a potential sale of the Nationals, which said last April they were exploring the marketplace.
“Potential disputes that your honor is alluding to are ones that will be litigated, as this case has been litigated, until kingdom come by my friends for the other side,” Shaffer said. “So I think that is a recipe for just having this litigation continue and continue in a never-ending fashion as opposed to having one chapter of this at long last more than a decade later conclude.”
MASN, which is controlled by the Orioles, paid the Nationals for 2012-16 what Baltimore proposed: $197.5 million. Washington argued it should be paid $475 million.
An arbitration panel of baseball executives — Pittsburgh Pirates President Frank Coonelly, Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg and New York Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon — heard the case in 2012 and ruled in 2014 that the Nationals were owed $298.1 million.
The Orioles appealed, and that decision was thrown out in 2015 by New York Supreme Court Justice Lawrence K. Marks, who ruled that a law firm representing the Nationals was conflicted because it had worked for clubs of executives on the panel. The appellate division sent the case back to baseball to be heard by a reconstituted Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee.
A second panel of baseball executives — Milwaukee Brewers chairman Mark Attanasio, Seattle Mariners President Kevin Mather and Toronto Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro — ordered the slightly lower payment of $296.8 million. The Orioles argue that the process remained tainted and should be decided by a different forum.
“At some point, the commissioner of Major League Baseball reached the conclusion that the Orioles should lose this case,” Carter G. Phillips, a lawyer for the Orioles, told the court. “By the end of the proceeding, the first proceeding, which was an evidently partial proceeding, his view was the Orioles should lose. And he has said that over and over and over again. So that partiality continues on to this day, and this court should not blink at it.”
Justices seemed unsure what power the court had to order the dispute to an arbitration forum other than the RSDC specified in the agreement between the Baltimore and Washington teams that allowed the Montreal Expos to move and become the Nationals for the 2005 season. Some questioned whether the agreement set up what amounted more to an appraisal process than an arbitration.
“This is not a problem of a single arbitrator. This is a problem of MLB and of the entire institution,” Phillips said. “First and second of all, there was no question what the second arbitration award was going to look like. It’s within .02% of the first award. You can reverse engineer from the number.”