NEW YORK (Reuters) - Major League Baseball must produce documents relating to a dispute over television rights fees involving the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals before the matter goes to trial next year, a judge ruled on Monday.
The regional baseball rivals have been at odds over the amount the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, also known as MASN, should pay the Nationals to broadcast their games. The Orioles control MASN, which broadcasts in the U.S. capital and seven surrounding states. The Nationals own a minority stake.
MASN and the teams had agreed to take their dispute to a Major League Baseball internal arbitration committee, which ruled in June the network should pay the Nationals about $60 million a year, rather than the $40 million that had been agreed on earlier.
MASN is now suing MLB and the Nationals in New York State Supreme Court, arguing in part that the committee was not impartial, and that Rob Manfred, who is due to be promoted to baseball commissioner in the new year, exerted undue influence over the process in favor of the Nationals.
MLB denies that, saying Manfred and others only provided administrative support for the committee, which was led by the owners or owners' representatives of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Mets.
"This was the conciliatory role played by the commissioner with everyone's knowledge," John Buckley, Jr., a lawyer for MLB, told the court, He described MASN's request for further discovery as a "fishing expedition."
On Monday, Judge Lawrence Marks partially granted a request by MASN's lawyers at a pre-trial hearing that he order MLB to produce records showing the identities of everyone who attended various meetings and deliberations about the dispute.
He also said MLB must produce any correspondence it had about the role Manfred and MLB had in preparing the committee's June decision, and some details about when drafts and other documents were emailed, faxed or posted.
The judge denied MASN's broader request that MLB produce the actual draft documents themselves as well as documents about committee meetings that were not connected to the Nationals dispute.
He also ruled that MLB may be able to withhold some of those documents and records if it can convince the court that producing them would breach attorney-client privilege.
In an affidavit last month, Manfred wrote that MLB staff routinely helped the arbitration committee with scheduling and other administrative issues.
"Additionally, MLB attorneys, at times including myself, provide legal advice to the committee as well as assist in preparing draft decisions," under the committee's directions.
He argued that MASN and the Orioles had been aware of those practices for many years, and that he had discussed with them the MLB's role before the arbitration proceedings began.
MASN's lawyers say MLB ignored their concerns about the involvement of Proskauer Rose, a prominent New York law firm that has long represented MLB and also represented the Nationals in the arbitration and represented the Pirates, Blue Rays and the Mets in other matters while the arbitration was happening.
Manfred says he does not believe the committee had the power to disqualify Proskauer, and that MASN and the Orioles did not pursue other options to lodge objections about the law firm's involvement.
Another pre-trial conference is set for Jan. 8, and the trial is expected to begin in March 2015. The judge has ordered a temporary injunction on the payments terms decided by the committee.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Peter Cooney