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MASN court case: Orioles receive victory from judge on discovery motion

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A judge on Monday gave MASN a partial, but potentially significant, victory in the court case over Orioles and Nationals television rights fees. MLB must turn over some documents that could prove it influenced the arbitration process.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The court case over MASN rights fees had another day of oral arguments on Monday. The trial is not until March. Monday's arguments concerned a pre-trial motion for discovery, which would require MLB to turn over some documents requested by MASN. The judge ruled largely in favor of MASN, according to Eric Fisher of the Sports Business Journal, who attended the hearing.

Initially, MASN sought five sets of documents from MLB. These were generally seeking to discover to what extent MLB officials such as either the Commissioner or now-Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred may have influenced the RSDC's decision. By the Monday hearing, the argument concerned two sets of documents, which were as follows:

2. Portions of any records of any Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee meetings or deliberations sufficient to show the identities of all persons in attendance at each such meeting or deliberation.

With this request, MASN wanted to discover whether any MLB personnel were in the room or on any e-mail chains where the three arbitrators - one representative from each of the Rays, Pirates, and Mets - were making their deliberations. This request was not granted by the judge. The arbitrator's deliberative process is one of those sacred things to a court based on legal precedent, as MLB reminded the judge in its response to this motion.

Initially, there were five requests, three of which were settled between the parties before going to the court. Request 1 concerned a letter from MLB to the Nationals about a $25 million loan that the league would provide to the team in anticipation of being paid back by MASN after the RSDC ruled. This was provided to MASN without anyone needing the judge to compel them to do so.

The existence of this loan is a big pillar of support for MASN's notion that MLB was involved in influencing the Revenue Sharing Decisions Committee. There were 25 million reasons for the deck to have possibly been stacked against the Orioles.

5. All Communications by and between MLB, including, but not limited to, Robert D. Manfred, the Commissioner of Baseball or anyone else acting on behalf or at the direction of either Manfred or the Commissioner of Baseball or both, on the one hand, and the Arbitrators, on the other, concerning (a) the analysis, consideration and application by the Arbitrators of the "RSDC's established methodology for evaluating all other related party telecast agreements in the industry" in the Arbitration or (b) the role of Robert D. Manfred or MLB in the preparation of the Decision.

An issue for MASN is that Manfred effectively acted as the gatekeeper for information between the two parties in the arbitration and the arbitrators themselves. The arbitrators all filed identical affidavits calling Manfred "support staff"; MLB later likened his role to that of a law clerk.

However, MASN believes that his actions go beyond that. Part of their support for this Request 5 in front of the court concerned since-resolved Requests 3 and 4, in which MASN sought to know what Manfred had told the arbitrators about the Orioles' pre-RSDC hearing objections to Nationals counsel. MLB informed MASN that there were no such documents to provide at all, suggesting that Manfred never relayed important information in the case, including pre-hearing submissions.

This request was granted by Judge Lawrence Marks. MLB is now obligated to comb through its records and turn over anything that fits that description to MASN and the court. There is no deadline for this to be provided, according to Fisher, but with a March 2 trial date, if they drag their heels, you can figure MASN will be back in court to compel it to be done faster or seek a delay in the trial date.

MASN's counsel in the case, Thomas Hall, hailed the victory. "We are gratified that the court recognized that certain matters concerning the relationships between MLB, the arbitrators and Proskauer are the fair subject of discovery under these circumstances," he said in a statement.

Will anything interesting be found as these documents are opened up to scrutiny? The Orioles are hoping there's some kind of figurative smoking gun in there, such as a memo from Manfred that the RSDC should ignore its own precedent in this particular dispute. It probably won't be that easy.

They don't need an e-mail from Bud Selig telling the arbitrators an exact dollar amount to issue; they just need enough to surface to convince the judge that it was impossible for MASN/the Orioles to get an independent and fair hearing based on the level of MLB's influence over the process. It is possible that even with this request granted, there will not be sufficient evidence to establish that claim.

At stake for the Orioles is potentially $24 million per year in future revenue, in addition to a payment of about $60 million that MASN would have to make to cover 2012-14 rights fees where they have underpaid relative to the RSDC's ruling.