Ninth Circuit Rejects Former Ballplayers’ Suit Over Pensions
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A civil rights action brought on behalf of more than 1,000 former players against Major League Baseball was rejected yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The panel agreed with U.S. District Judge Manuel Real of the Central District of California that MLB’s financial aid to African Americans who were prevented from playing in the “big leagues” prior to 1948 did not constitute discrimination against whites who played too early to gain the generous benefits paid to recently retired players.
Real granted a summary judgment sought by MLB, Commissioner Bud Selig, and the 30 major league clubs.
The ex-players, who played between 1947 and 1979, sued for violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They claimed that MLB discriminates against them by not giving them pensions, while giving payments to a small number of players who played in the Negro Leagues, as they were called, before MLB integrated.
The plaintiffs sought benefits for players who did not vest in the pension plan or qualify for medical benefits because they had less than the five years’ service credit originally required, or less than four years’ credit under a change that took effect in 1969.
When players went on strike in 1981, they emerged with a plan that requires only 43 days’ credit to qualify for a pension, and just one day of service to qualify for medical benefits. That change, however, only benefits those who played from 1980 on.
Former New York Mets infielder Al Moran, onetime Houston and Kansas City infielder Ernie Fazio, and Mike Colbern, a onetime All-American at Arizona State University who caught for the Chicago White Sox in 1978 and 1979, initiated the suit in 2003.
They argued that the plaintiff class was being treated unfairly in comparison with participants in separate programs in which MLB pays $10,000 per year, and provides medical benefits, to athletes who played n the Negro Leagues before 1948 if their pre-1948 service in those leagues plus any service in the major leagues totaled four years.
Fewer than two dozen ex-players are believed to be receiving those benefits.
Reinhardt, however, agreed with MLB that the payments to the Negro League players cannot be compared to the MLB pension and medical plans because the former are not an employment benefit.
“Although some beneficiaries of the two Negro League Plans may have played MLB baseball for a relatively short period of time, eligibility for benefits is not based on such former employment with MLB or on any employment relationship between MLB and the recipients,” the judge wrote. “Rather, to qualify for the Negro League Plans, a recipient need not be a former MLB player, only a former Negro League player.”
Not Similarly Situated
Nor, the judge went on to say, are the plaintiff class members and the Negro League players similarly situated. One group was excluded from the major leagues based on race, Reinhardt explained, while the other is made up of those who were not excluded, but simply failed to qualify for benefits.
Even if the plaintiffs were treated disparately, the judge went on to say, there was no Title VII violation because baseball has the right to make up for past injustices even if that results in unequal treatment of similarly situated players.
“To the extent that MLB sought to remedy in part its past discriminatory conduct, it acted honorably and decently and not out of an improper or invidious motive,” Reinhardt wrote. “MLB has thus shown a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision to provide benefits to former Negro League Players, a reason that is not pretextual in any respect.”
The lawsuit also included claims of battery and negligence. The players say Major League Baseball teams directed doctors and trainers to inject players with multiple cortisone shots to mask pain, without informing players of the dangers.
Reinhardt, however, noted that the plaintiffs had abandoned their negligence claim in District Court, and said the battery claim failed under California law because the plaintiffs failed to support it with evidence that the doctors and trainers knew of any undisclosed risks.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company