New York Knicks owner James Dolan's testing positive for the coronavirus and his still-unresolved litigation with retired Knicks forward Charles Oakley have nothing to do with one another.
Until they do.
On Saturday, the Knicks revealed that Dolan has tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, he is experiencing only mild symptoms. While the 64-year-old billionaire will self-isolate and adopt other preventative measures, he intends to continue his day-to-day roles as executive chairman and chief executive officer of MSG and executive chairman of MSG Networks.
Among NBA franchise owners during this pandemic, the often-criticized Dolan has been one of the more generous to his employees. He has committed to paying qualified MSG employees through May 3. Dolan has also commissioned and financed a relief fund to support MSG event staff. New York City has been especially hit hard by the virus. Dolan’s efforts are welcomed.
Dolan’s schedule this week isn’t entirely of his choosing. Until an amended court order was issued on Monday, Dolan had been set to participate in a court-ordered conference call at 10 a.m. on Tuesday with the following group: his attorneys, Oakley’s attorneys and Oakley himself. The call will still take place with the attorneys and it will be overseen by mediator Charles Ramos, a retired New York judge. Dolan and Oakley could opt to join the call, but that is now up to them.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered Dolan and his franchise’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds to participate in the court’s confidential mediation and settlement program (CAMP). CAMP is intended to get opposing sides talking in hopes of reaching a settlement that negates the need for further litigation. Oakley is appealing Judge Richard Sullivan’s recent dismissal of his lawsuit. Only if mediation fails can Oakley’s appeal continue.
In the light of Dolan's contracting COVID-19, it is understandable that Dolan and Oakley are no longer obligated to join the call. Even though the Knicks report that Dolan is feeling well enough to work, coronavirus is a serious, occasionally deadly sickness that can require two weeks or longer for recovery. Litigants who are afflicted with COVID-19 may see merits in a requesting a delay in legal proceedings until they are healthy.
With the Dolan-Oakley mediation moving forward on Tuesday, it’s worth taking a look at how an unusual incident from a Knicks game in 2017 led to criminal charges and a lawsuit that has now reached the highest federal court in New York.
A history of strained relations
Every lawsuit has a story to tell. That is certainly true of Oakley’s two-and-a-half-year case against Dolan.
Oakley last played for the Knicks in 1998. Six years later, he retired from the NBA at age 40. Like other former Knicks stars, Oakley hoped to continue his association with the franchise during his retirement.
Yet in attempting to remain part of the Knicks family, Oakley has felt shunned and ignored by Dolan. Oakley has told media that while he never had a problem with Dolan’s father, Charles Dolan (who owned the Knicks’ parent company), it was a different story with James, who took over control of the franchise in 1999. Oakley has complained that he was rebuffed in attempts to land a Knicks assistant coaching job. In 2016, Oakley was noticeably omitted from the invite list of retired players for the Knicks’ 70th anniversary celebration. Oakley has also felt slighted by having to buy Knicks tickets while other retired Knicks stars are invited guests.
The Knicks appear to have their own set concerns about Oakley. Among them: He has long been an outspoken critic of decisions made by team management. The bluntness of Oakley’s second-guessing has likely irritated Dolan.
For instance, in 2008, Oakley blasted the Knicks in an interview with the New York Daily News. The topic was the Knicks’ decision a few years earlier to hire Isiah Thomas as head coach instead of promoting assistant coach Herb Williams. “They made a bad move, they should have given it to Herb,” Oakley insisted. “Instead, they go for the high-profile coach. They should get someone who knows the game and the players respect. They haven't been coached.”
Seven years later, Oakley took more direct aim at Dolan, telling the New York Daily News, “As hard as I played for that motherf-----, and he don't want to talk with me?”
The MSG incident
Oakley purchased a ticket to watch the Knicks host the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 8, 2017. Oakley attended the game and sat, as Oakley’s complaint called it, “coincidentally” a handful of rows behind Dolan.
A few minutes after sitting down, three men approached Oakley, who rose to speak with them. The men told Oakley that they were from MSG’s security team. They then requested that he leave the arena. Oakley objected, stressing that he “had done nothing wrong.” Oakley demanded to know why he would need to leave the arena when he had lawfully purchased a ticket to attend the game and, at that point, had not violated the fan code of conduct. One of the guards responded by asking Oakley, “Why are you sitting so close to Mr. Dolan?”
The conversation soon turned into a physical altercation. According to evidence and testimony contained in trial court records, two of the three guards grabbed Oakley and pushed him to the ground. He was then told that he needed to leave MSG “immediately.” Several other guards soon approached the area.
After Oakley stood back up, he reiterated his request to know what exactly he had done wrong and why he was being tossed from the arena. NBA game tickets are revocable licenses to enter private property to attend a game. Without this license, a person in an arena would be a trespasser and subject to arrest for both trespass and disturbing the peace. While the license can be revoked if a ticketholder violates the fan code of conduct, it did not appear that Oakley had acted in a way that would have triggered a violation.
As Oakley and the guards had a stand-off of sorts, he pushed away the security guards’ hands. This escalated the incident in such a way that as many as six guards grabbed Oakley and brought him to the ground. The guards then restrained Oakley and escorted him out of MSG. They placed him in the custody of New York City police officers from Precinct 14, which is two blocks from the arena.
Oakley was charged with four misdemeanors—three counts of assault in the third degree and one count of trespass in the third degree. The criminal case was resolved through a plea agreement. In exchange for prosecutors agreeing to drop the charges, Oakley pledged to avoid additional legal problems for six months and refrain from entering MSG as a trespasser. Oakley met those conditions, and the criminal case ended in 2018.
Oakley claims that Dolan and the Knicks defamed him
The aftermath of the MSG incident sparked the circumstances that led Oakley—whom Dolan banned from attending future Knicks games—to sue. This began with a tweet by the Knicks public relations account, @NY_KnicksPR, on the evening of the incident. The tweet asserted that Oakley had behaved in an “abusive manner”:
The following day, the team tweeted that Oakley partook in “abusive behavior”:
Tensions only rose when Dolan appeared on the Feb. 10 broadcast of The Michael Kay Show. During the show, Dolan insisted that Oakley “came to the Garden with an agenda, with a mission in mind and from the moment he stepped into the Garden, and I mean from the moment he walked through the first set of doors, he began with this behavior, abusive behavior, disrespectful behavior.” Dolan told Kay that Oakley had a “problem with anger” and is “both physically and verbally abusive.” Dolan further speculated that Oakley “may have a problem with alcohol" and “talked about on TV that he was drinking beforehand," claiming that “police and security [believed] that he appeared to be impaired.”
Oakley then sued Dolan and the Knicks, claiming that the tweets from Feb. 8 and Feb. 9, as well as Dolan’s statements on Feb. 10, were defamatory. Oakley maintained that the defendants had made untrue statements about him—namely, that Oakley had assaulted the security guards and that he deals with alcoholism. Oakley asserted that these false statements sullied his reputation. Oakley added additional claims stemming from the physical incident with the security guards. He argued, among other points, that he was a victim of assault, battery and false imprisonment. Oakley has sought monetary damages.
Judge Sullivan dismisses all of Oakley’s claims
Oakley’s lawsuit was dismissed last month. Judge Sullivan concluded that Oakley had failed to allege a plausible legal claim.
In reaching that determination, the judge identified a number of perceived defects in Oakley’s analysis. First, none of Dolan’s statements or Knicks’ tweets accuse Oakley of committing assault. Assault has a technical meaning under New York law: causing physical injury to another person. Dolan and the Knicks repeatedly mentioned “abusive behavior” and “abusive conduct,” but “abusive” is a vague word. It does not necessarily mean assault.
Second, Oakley failed to establish actual malice, a required element for defamation lawsuits brought by public figures. A finding of actual malice required Oakley to show that Dolan and the Knicks had either knowingly expressed false and defaming information about him or had reckless disregard for their statements’ truth or falsity.
Judge Sullivan determined that Oakley hadn’t “provided any factual grounds to support” a showing of actual malice. Oakley asserted only that Dolan harbored a general animosity toward him—the judge found such an assertion, without supporting facts or reasoning, to be “conclusory,” meaning that claims a conclusion without explaining the reasoning for the conclusion.
Likewise, Oakley hadn’t explained why Dolan’s speculation on Oakley as possibly having alcoholism was made as a knowingly false statement or with reckless disregard for the truth.
Third, Judge Sullivan concluded that Oakley “grossly misunderstands the law concerning a landlord’s right to remove a trespasser from its property.” MSG is privately owned and has the right to revoke revocable licenses (Oakley may have had a right to a refund after being kicked out, but that is not at issue in the case). Likewise, the guards weren’t required to justify the revocation or their request that he leave. Stated differently, it wasn’t Oakley’s call as to whether MSG had a valid reason to remove him.
To that point, once MSG revoked Oakley’s right to remain in the arena, MSG had a right to demand that Oakley leave the premises immediately. Oakley was obligated to comply. As the judge saw it, Oakley’s refusal to comply converted him into a trespasser. At that point, MSG obtained the right to use “reasonable force” to remove trespasser Oakley from the property.
Fourth, the guards, in the view of Judge Sullivan, appeared to act reasonably in light of the circumstances. Oakley, the judge notes, “does not claim that this unwanted touching [the guards' grabbing Oakley and forcing him to the ground] occurred before he refused to comply with the guards' directive that he leave the Garden.” Further, Judge Sullivan reasons, “nowhere does Oakley allege that the guards intended to injure him, and his description of the events as they unfolded does not support an inference of excessive or unreasonable force. ... Oakley does not allege that the guards gratuitously punched or kicked him or that any of the physical contact was unnecessary or malicious.”
Fifth, Judge Sullivan was unpersuaded by Oakley’s claim he was a victim of false imprisonment. The guards, the judge noted, had a right to confine Oakley—who became a trespasser after he refused to leave the arena—until the police could arrive.
At the end of his opinion, Judge Sullivan portrayed Oakley’s case as one driven more by a desire to appeal to fans and media than to the courts. “From its inception,” the judge wrote, “this case has had the feel of a public relations campaign, with the parties seemingly more interested in the court of public opinion than the merits of their legal arguments.” He added, “while basketball fans in general, and Knicks fans in particular, are free to form their own opinions about who was in the right ... the fact remains that Oakley had failed to allege a plausible legal claim.”
Mediation is the next step
Oakley and his attorneys invoked the right to appeal Judge Sullivan’s dismissal to the applicable federal appellate court, the Second Circuit. As noted above, the appeal can advance only if court-ordered mediation fails. Under Local Rule 33.1, the Second Circuit has the authority to compel parties and their attorneys to participate in a mediation conference. It invoked that authority here.
The Dolan-Oakley mediation will be conducted in a private setting. All involved will be bound by strict confidentiality. Unlike in arbitration, where an arbitrator issues an award (ruling) that both sides must follow, mediation is a nonbinding process. The mediator—here Judge Ramos—is neutral and tries to understand the interests, needs and goals of both sides. The mediator also attempts to bridge differences between the two sides by getting them to appreciate the other side’s perspective. At the end of the mediation, the mediator proposes a solution. The proposal becomes binding only if both sides agree to it.
Will mediation work for Dolan and Oakley? They’ve already tried a NBA-style version of mediation, and it didn’t lead to a peace treaty. Five days after the MSG incident, Dolan and Oakley met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the league’s headquarters. Michael Jordan joined in the meeting by phone. The dispute clearly continued after that meeting.
But that was in 2017. We’re now in 2020, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has already affected Dolan. Perhaps, in this new world, the two men will discover common ground. It seems what each wants from the other is basic respect and dignity. Maybe they’ll find it after all these years.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.