MLB Scores Double Win In Ticket Buyers' COVID-19 Suit

By Joyce Hanson
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Law360 (October 7, 2020, 7:43 PM EDT) -- A California federal judge has handed Major League Baseball and two Bay Area MLB teams victories in a proposed class action by fans who seek refunds nationwide for tickets they bought to games postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ruling ticket buyers already received refunds.

U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer said in her Tuesday order granting MLB's motion to dismiss that each of the six plaintiffs who bought a ticket directly from a team has received a full refund or credit. Plaintiffs Anne Berger and Jeremy and Amanda Woolley received full refunds for their Chicago Cubs tickets, Benny Wong received a full refund on his tickets from the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, Krystal Moyer received a refund from the Philadelphia Phillies, and Matthew Ajzenman received an account credit for the amount he paid for New York Mets season tickets plus a bonus credit, the judge said.

"The single plaintiff who received a credit rather than a refund, Ajzenman, had the option of seeking a refund, but did not," Judge Fischer said.

The judge also favored MLB's argument that her court lacks personal jurisdiction over the 25 baseball teams based outside of California, citing a 2015 Northern District of California decision in Senne v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp.  that said personal jurisdiction should be based on a narrow framing that specifies defendants among MLB's 30 teams.

"Because none of the out-of-state club games that plaintiffs bought tickets for was scheduled to be played in California, plaintiffs' injury would have arisen even if none of the out-of-state clubs had games scheduled in California for the entire season. Consequently, the claims do not arise out of forum-related activities," Judge Fischer wrote.

In a separate order involving the A's and the Giants, over which she does have jurisdiction, the judge largely handed a win to the Bay Area teams.

She granted the teams' motion to compel arbitration as to Wong's claims against the A's, ordering Wong to submit to arbitration. Judge Fischer also dismissed the remaining plaintiffs' claims against the team but granted them leave to amend some of their claims by Nov. 2.

As for Wong's claims against the Giants, Judge Fischer found that Wong wasn't given sufficient notice of an arbitration provision when he bought tickets from a third-party website, so the judge denied the Bay Area teams' bid to compel arbitration of his Giants claims.

A lawyer for the fans, Peggy Wedgworth of Milberg Phillips Grossman LLP, said in a statement Wednesday that the decision provides an opportunity to amend the complaint for some of the claims, and the firm is considering that option with its clients.

"We are disappointed with the ruling regarding arbitration and are also discussing the best course forward of these claims with our clients," Wedgworth said.

Counsel for MLB and the two California teams didn't immediately return requests for comment Wednesday.

Judge Fischer's orders followed the July 29 motions from MLB and the Bay Area teams to dismiss or to compel arbitration in the fans' suit.

MLB argued that the lawsuit against it and major ticket companies StubHub Inc., Live Nation Entertainment Inc. and Ticketmaster LLC was nothing more than hastily filed litigation aimed at capitalizing on the pandemic, yet was "riddled with defects."

"As this once-in-a-century pandemic has unfolded, all 30 MLB clubs — including the clubs from which plaintiffs allegedly purchased tickets — have implemented policies offering refunds and credits for tickets sold to games now impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic," MLB said in its motion to dismiss. "In short, plaintiffs are now pursuing refunds they have already received."

The ticketing giants also escaped several claims brought by MLB fans when Judge Fischer on Sept. 14 said in three orders that fans who purchased their tickets directly from MLB or MLB teams can't bring their claims against Ticketmaster, its parent company Live Nation, StubHub Inc. and its subsidiary Last Minute Transactions Inc.

Judge Fischer shipped the rest of the claims off to arbitration, ruling that fans who used the companies' websites entered into arbitration agreements.

The fans hit MLB, its teams and the ticketing companies with the proposed class action in April. They claimed that the league continued to say games were "postponed" despite the growing likelihood that many or all of the games wouldn't be played for weeks, a move they argued was a "pretext" to avoid paying refunds.

But Judge Fischer found on Sept. 14 that the fans failed to sufficiently allege any conspiracy existed among the league, teams and ticketing companies. Most of the fans' allegations are vague, and the allegations with more of a factual basis are irrelevant to the ticket merchants, she said.

"Nowhere do plaintiffs allege that Ticketmaster — an authorized reseller of MLB tickets — and StubHub — a fan-to-fan resale ticket merchant — had the power to affirmatively cancel baseball games," Judge Fischer said. "That was squarely in the hands of the MLB, commissioner and team defendants."

Major League Baseball, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants are represented by R. Adam Lauridsen, John W. Keker, Benjamin D. Rothstein and Bailey W. Heaps of Keker Van Nest & Peters LLP.

The fans are represented by David Azar, Marc Grossman, Peggy Wedgworth, Andrei Rado, Blake Yagman and Michael Acciavatti of Milberg Phillips Grossman LLP and Alex R. Straus of Greg Coleman Law PC.

The case is Matthew Ajzenman et al. v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball d/b/a Major League Baseball, case number 2:20-cv-03643, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

--Additional reporting by Craig Clough, Hailey Konnath and Zachary Zagger. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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