By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York Jets football fan cannot pursue his $184.8 million lawsuit over the secret videotaping of signals from Jets coaches by archrival New England Patriots, a federal appeals court ruled.
Wednesday's unanimous ruling by a panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court dismissal of the lawsuit by Carl Mayer, a Princeton, New Jersey, lawyer with Jets season tickets, in a scandal known as "Spygate."
Mayer said he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Consumers are being taken advantage of when an organization like the Patriots engages in a systematic fraud," he said in an interview.
The case arose from the videotaping by a Patriots employee of signals from the Jets sideline in a September 9, 2007, game.
The Patriots won 38-14, but the National Football League later fined the team and coach Bill Belichick, and stripped it of a 2008 first-round draft pick.
Mayer sought damages of $61.6 million representing the cost of tickets for Jets-Patriots games at Giants Stadium from 2000 through 2007, covering Belichick's tenure as coach, and wanted that sum tripled under federal racketeering laws.
He alleged the games were essentially rigged and raised a separate claim against the NFL for destroying the videotapes.
But the appeals court said ticket-holders possess only licenses or contractual rights to see games, and that it is up to the NFL to enforce its own rules if something goes amiss.
"We do not condone the conduct on the part of the Patriots and the team's head coach, and we likewise refrain from assessing whether the NFL's sanctions (and its alleged destruction of the videotapes themselves) were otherwise appropriate," Judge Robert Cowen wrote for the court.
He said that, while unhappy fans can vent frustration by speaking out against the Patriots, Belichick or the league, or refusing to buy tickets or NFL merchandise, "the one thing they cannot do is bring a legal action in a court of law."
INVITATION TO CHEAT, OR FRIVOLOUS CLAIM?
Lee Marshall, a litigation partner at Bryan Cave LLP in San Francisco, said courts are "basically closing doors" to fans seeking to sue over on-field rules violations.
"If decisions went the other way, leagues would be defending lawsuits all over," he said. "In baseball, it could result in fans suing over steroids violations."
Bruce Afran, a lawyer working with Mayer, said Wednesday's ruling "invites professional teams to cheat, without liability to fans who pay to support them. It strikes us as very strange that one can spend tens of thousands of dollars for season tickets and have no right to be protected from fraud."
Daniel Goldberg, a partner at Bingham McCutchen LLP in Boston representing the Patriots, said the ruling is consistent with other case law.
"We always viewed this as a frivolous lawsuit, brought to the court by a Jets season ticket holder who happens to be a lawyer," Goldberg said in a statement.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello added: "The decision speaks for itself."
Mayer, 51, said he has had Jets season tickets since 2006, but tried to sue on behalf of a wider class.
The case is Mayer v. Belichick et al, U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 09-02237.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; editing by Maureen Bavdek and Andre Grenon)