Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Judge Dismisses Angel Hernandez's Discrimination Case

New York Southern District Court Judge J Paul Oetken dismissed Angel Hernandez's discrimination case against Major League Baseball which alleged MLB unlawfully discriminated against the veteran umpire based on his race, ethnicity, and/or national origin.

In doing so, Judge Oetken agreed that MLB employs a low proportion of umpires who are minorities compared to other leagues, but similarly used those figures to agree with MLB's argument that, thanks to Minor League Baseball's purported failure to supply the major leagues with umpiring diversity, the pool of protected class umpires that make it to the big leagues is simply too small to draw the conclusion that the league systemically discriminates on the basis of race or another protected characteristic.

Wrote Oetken, "the fact that no or very few minorities were promoted [is] 'statistically meaningless,'" thus rejecting Hernandez's inexorable zero argument that courts should look beyond basic statistical analysis when defendants have promoted "zero or near zero minorities or women" (ed note: MLB still has not hired a woman to officiate major league contests, so similar base statistical analysis would likely be meaningless there, as well). Regarding the Crew Chief claim, for instance, the Court cited Richie Garcia, a crew chief who last umpired in 1999, as evidence that MLB has had a minority crew chief in the past and thus, the inexorable zero argument cannot apply.

Now that MLB actually owns the Minor League Baseball pipeline, however, the diversity problem—which MLB previously argued does not exist—would now be fully owned by MLB, if it were to continue.

Judge Oetken also left room for second-guessing his summary judgment decision, writing phrases leaving doubt, such as, "the record is not entirely clear regarding how MLB develops mid- and end-season evaluations" and "the record is not transparent about the weight [former Chief Baseball Officer Joe] Torre affords the criteria he uses in promotion decisions."

Hernandez had argued that his mid- and end-season evaluations and their interaction with how MLB's top brass selected World Series umpires and Crew Chief promotions were improperly handled. By leaving the evaluations question open-ended and "not entirely clear," Oetken may very well have left the door open to appeal from Hernandez's team, if they should choose to do so.

Oetken cited the Collective Bargaining agreement between the MLB Umpires Association (then-World Umpires Association) and MLB, writing that the CBA gives MLB "absolute and exclusive discretion" in umpire hiring/promotion/assignment and, as such, cited MLB's emphasis of "the consistent display of leadership skills" as the "most important" factor in crew chief decisions, pursuant to Torre's testimony.

For example, even with Hernandez producing evidence that multiple supervisors had recommended him for the World Series in 2012 and 2015, the Court found that due to the CBA, MLB could simply say "no" and, unless the League overtly made the decision with a stated racial motivation, without regard to fairness, it was most likely lawful.

The same legally ok and ethically unreviewable argument could very well apply to such behaviors as Fieldin Culbreth's testimony in which he detailed how the league pressured him to apply for an open crew chief position even though he did not want to apply and felt the job should have gone to Wally Bell or to Hernandez.

In other words, the statistics showing Hernandez's above-average plate scores, superior Replay Review record compared to non-protected class umpires who were promoted in his place, supervisor recommendations to work the Fall Classic, and other quantitative records were all largely dismissed by the Court in favor of MLB's subjective criteria for promotion, pursuant to the CBA's "absolute and exclusive discretion" clause.

As such, and without a smoking gun directly leading to a reading of racial bias, as opposed to personal animus Torre might have had with Hernandez, Judge Oetken issued a summary dismissal, noting that while Hernandez may have been treated poorly—and may still continue to be treated unfairly—it does not rise to the level of a prima facie case for racially-motivated discrimination.

To drive his point home, Oetkin wrote that MLB's "subjective and multi-faceted nature" of assignment/promotion decision-making was, itself, legal, even if it might be unfair.

Gil's Call: The bottom line, in my estimation is thus: MLB got lucky through a technicality that it pays its lawyers a lot of money to detect and insert into CBA language. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York all but announced a diversity problem does indeed exist in baseball umpiring, thus rejecting MLB's argument that no such issue infects its league.

Yet, because Hernandez's case required substantial evidence of active intent to racially discriminate, given the CBA's "absolute and exclusive discretion" language, the Court was effectively prohibited from considering objective metrics such as plate score and replay statistics that conclusively did show Hernandez's superiority when compared to white umpires promoted and assigned in his stead. Instead, the Court was obligated to defer to MLB's subjective judgment, which, absent overt evidence of intent to discriminate, must be allowed to prevail.

The bottom line? MLBUA should seen to strike that language—"absolute and exclusive discretion"—but given the outcome of this case, MLB will likely fight tooth and nail to keep it on the books.

Video as follows:

Alternate Link: Umpire Angel Hernandez's Discrimination Lawsuit Against MLB Dismissed (CCS)


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