The People vs. James Dolan

New York Knicks owner James Dolan.
New York Knicks owner and C.E.O. of Madison Square Garden Sports, James Dolan. MSG has instituted a policy banning lawyers at firms currently suing the company. Photo: Paul Bereswill/Getty Images
Eriq Gardner
December 5, 2022

The tyrannically thin-skinned James Dolan, the Cablevision heir whose family has owned the Knicks and Rangers for two generations, is arguably the worst team owner in all of sports. It’s not just that he oversees perpetually losing seasons as the C.E.O. of Madison Square Garden Sports and Madison Square Garden Entertainment, although those have been absolutely miserable to endure. It’s how Dolan has handled personal affairs, like keeping The Daily News from press conferences because he didn’t like the way the paper covered a female executive’s lawsuit alleging a hostile workplace, or how he threw Knicks legend Charles Oakley out of the Garden over a grudge.  

Still, nothing quite prepared me for reading the sworn affidavit filed on Nov. 2 by Barbara Hart, an attorney at Grant & Eisenhofer. The international firm is providing counsel for the City of Boca Raton Police and Firefighters’ Retirement System, which is currently involved in a lawsuit in Delaware alleging that MSG overpaid for the MSG cable network, and that the Dolan family received unique benefits from the acquisition to the detriment of other stockholders. 

Hart said that she attempted to attend a concert at the Garden on Oct. 22, unaware that MSG had instituted a policy banning lawyers at firms currently suing the company. “While at MSG, I was identified as a banned G&E attorney via facial recognition software,” she stated in her affidavit. “MSG employees stopped me and asked for my ID. After I refused to give it to them, they correctly identified me as Barbara Hart.”

Facial recognition software to stop plaintiff lawyers from enjoying live music? What’s next, keeping a movie critic out of theaters after a bad review? And then what? Will law firms add language to their website’s terms of use to stop anyone from scraping attorney photos? Might the bar association retaliate by not allowing lawyers to represent Dolan? 

At a Nov. 7 hearing, Delaware Chancellor Kathaleen McCormick—yes, the same judge who oversaw the Elon-Twitter litigation—called MSG’s policy of banning adverse lawyers the “stupidest thing I’ve ever read.” The policy has now triggered a separate case up in New York that is moving swiftly and has the potential of shaping our dystopian future. 

Larry Hutcher and dozens of other attorneys demanded an injunction on grounds that MSG may not revoke tickets without a compelling reason. While MSG defends its policy of forbidding suing lawyers from accessing its grounds as necessary to ensure there is no “disclosure outside proper litigation discovery channels,” the plaintiffs allege this is “absurd” and “nothing more than a flimsy unsupportable pretext to justify the infantile behavior of MSG’s principals.”

On Nov. 14, New York Supreme Court judge Lyle Frank ruled that MSG (and the venues it operates, including Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theater) may not deny entry to those lawyers presenting valid tickets, but also that MSG was indeed free to refuse to sell tickets to them in the future, plus revoke tickets up until the moment of being presented at the gate. A few days later, the judge then clarified that MSG could revoke tickets but not blanket revoke them.

That complication unsettled MSG, which then made an emergency appeal, stating in court papers that Hutcher had a law firm colleague buy a WizKid ticket. “Mr. Hutcher clearly orchestrated these events to test the Court’s Order,” stated King & Spalding partner Randy Mastro, adding that Frank’s attempt at a middle ground was “wholly unworkable, unreasonable, and in direct violation of MSG’s private property rights.” (Hutcher is appealing too.)

A New York appeals court quickly modified Frank’s ruling so that it only applies to the specific lawyers who sought an injunction, and has set a schedule for more extensive arguments this month.