Friday, May 11, 2007

Dorf on Baseball (and state action and non-mutual offensive issue preclusion)

A story in the sports section of yesterday's NY Times quoted yours truly as stating that the New York Yankees, as a private organization, act lawfully when they use chains to block the main aisles in the lower portion of the stadium to produce a proper sense of decorum during the playing of the national anthem and (during the seventh inning stretch) God Bless America. The only plausible legal impediment to this tactic would be the First Amendment, which only bars the government. (I didn't say this was a good idea, mind you, just that it wasn't illegal.)

A couple of readers of the story emailed to ask me whether there might not be state action either because Yankee Stadium is publicly owned (and leased to the Yankees). My buddy from summer softball games Marc Edelman (aka "Sports Judge") called my attention to the 1978 ruling in Ludtke v. Kuhn, 461 F. Supp. 86 (SDNY), in which Judge Mottley ruled that the Yankees ARE a state actor, relying on the Supreme Court's 1961 opinion in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority. In Burton, the Supreme Court held that a privately run coffee shop's acts of race discrimination were attributable to the state where the coffee shop was located within a publicly owned and operated facility, and where the public entity had in effect jointly participated in running the coffee shop.

Regardless of whether Judge Mottley interpreted Burton rightly or wrongly in concluding that the Yankees were a state actor in 1978, Burton has been so effectively gutted by subsequent Supreme Court cases like American Manufacturers Mutual Insurance Co. v. Sullivan, that the "intertwining" theory of Burton cannot be successfully invoked anymore. Moreover, the decision of a single district judge sets no precedent anyway, so that the Ludtke decision was never binding precedent.

Nonetheless, Ludtke could in theory be binding as a matter of issue preclusion (or collateral estoppel for you oldtimers). The Yankees were a party to Ludtke, and thus could, in principle, be estopped from relitigating their status as a state actor in a suit against them by a current fan claiming a First Amendment violation. However, such a case would be an instance of non-mutual offensive issue preclusion, and while that is permitted under the Supreme Court's ruling in Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore, it is a doctrine of discretion: It would be a very unwise (indeed abusive) use of a trial court's discretion to estop the Yankees from relitigating a three-decade-old determination that they are a state actor, where the governing law has changed and today's plaintiff is a stranger to the original litigation.

Okay, now that I've taken all of the fun out of baseball, I'll go back to grading federal courts exams so my students can get their degrees on time.


Aron said...

Why is it not false imprisonment?

egarber said...

How would this scenario play out?

A while back, NASCAR was bidding to open a race track in the Marysville, WA area. International Speedway Inc (on behalf of NASCAR) owns most of its tracks outright, but the Marysville plans -- which were abandoned for various reasons -- would have resulted in a publicly owned track with a certain number of races leased out to NASCAR.

Now, NASCAR events always begin with a prayer, a Christian prayer at that (thanking Jesus, etc.).

If NASCAR opens up shop in a public facility (they may already have this relationship in some places, for all I know), are there any First Amendment implications there? Or is NASCAR in the clear because it's not acting *as* the state?

Howard Wasserman said...

I agree with Mike that Burton and the idea of a "symbiotic relationship" between public and private entities does not have as much force as it once did. Still, I think there are a range of doctrines through which state-action can be found in a private entity that still have some life to them. Much depends on the details of the relationship and the terms of the use agreement between the government and the private entity (such as NASCAR).

In general, I would argue that if the state builds a sports facility for the exclusive/predominant and beneficial use of a private entity and turns all control of the facility to that private entity, it acts "as" the state, at least for certain purposes, such as managing the facility controlling what fans can do while there.

On the other hand, in egarber's example, I do not think NASCAR becomes the state for all purposes. So, perhaps, NASCAR could lead the prayer as a private entity, but it could not compel fans in the speedway to participate, because it manages the facility (and controls the fans in the facility) as the state.

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