July 11, 2013
In the final installment of this blog series on sport and e-discovery, we look at the larger picture of the league in relationship to the teams that comprise it.
The League and its Teams.
The relationship between the League and its individual franchises is fiduciary in nature and is based on economic interdependence. There may be situations where the League, in exercising its power to enforce League rules, becomes responsible for preserving and producing information it receives from its member teams or players.
In 2007, Coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were caught violating league rules by videotaping defensive plays called by other teams, including the New York Jets. The NFL’s internal investigation included collection of all copies of the tapes the Patriots had made of other teams’ defensive calls over seven years, including 2002, 2004 and 2005, when the Patriots won Super Bowls. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Coach Belichick $500,000, the maximum amount permitted by NFL rules, and docked the Patriots $250,000 and a first-round draft pick. After reviewing those tapes the NFL destroyed them, thus preventing examination by anyone else.
The NFL’s decision to demand and then destroy the videotapes raised the possibility of severe consequences for both the Patriots and the NFL. If litigation is reasonably anticipated, there exists an obligation to preserve evidence that is potentially relevant. It is hard to argue that the litigation against the NFL was unlikely as a result of the Patriots’ actions.
Less than two weeks after the NFL destroyed the tapes, a lawsuit was filed against Bill Belichick and the Patriots on behalf of all New York Jets season ticket holders in Mayer v. Bill Belichick et al. Plaintiffs requested $184 million in compensatory damages plus punitive damages on behalf of the plaintiff class. The plaintiffs also included a direct contract claim against the NFL for destroying the videotapes.
Luckily for the NFL, the court dismissed all claims, holding that ticketholders had no actionable claim against Belichick, the Patriots or the NFL because, so long as they got to watch a football game, they suffered no injury, even if the quality or “honesty” of the game was less than anticipated.
Had the case gone forward, the NFL would likely be in an unwinnable situation. In demanding the Patriots’ tapes, the NFL assumed responsibility for those tapes, including the duty to preserve evidence for anticipated litigation. Moreover, because the NFL destroyed all copies of such fundamental evidence, a judge would likely sanction all defendants for spoliation.
As these blogs have attempted to show, agents, team players, owners, and league representatives are all responsible for ensuring electronically stored information is properly managed in the event of pending litigation.