A Florida judge has denied a request by Centerplate to dismiss a breach of contract lawsuit filed by the Tampa Bay Rays at the conclusion of their 20-year relationship in 2017. While allowing the lawsuit to continue, U.S. district court judge James Moody called on both sides to turn the heat down on the rhetoric in the case, agreeing with Centerplate that the case was “nothing more than corporate blackmail.”
“The complaint is extremely detailed; perhaps it is too detailed,” Moody wrote in a Feb. 12 order denying Centerplate’s request to dismiss the case, first filed in December. “The complaint delineates, in painstaking detail, the alleged breaches Centerplate committed,” he continues, “the Court will not regurgitate these ample facts here but the Court notes that the allegations are sufficient to state claims of breach of contract and negligence.”
Centerplate signed a 20-year deal when the Rays were created as an MLB expansion team in 2018. The two had a rocky relationship with escalating disagreements over accounting, service quality and cleanliness.
In their federal lawsuit, the Rays allege Centerplate “surreptitiously cut corners, underreported gross receipts, concealed performance issues, underpaid the Rays, and underperformed under the Concession Agreement to the detriment of the Rays and their fans.”
A number of high profiles gaffes further soured the relationship — in August, the team’s Tropicana Field finished dead last in Sports Illustrated’s stadium food safety rankings. According to the report, the Ray’s home ballpark was cited by health officials for 241 food safety violations, including 105 critical violations, like black mold in an ice bin and live insects present in food areas. Other allegations include a fan injury from a falling sign, the hiring of a sex offender, drinking on the job by a senior executive and the public humilation of former Centerplate CEO Des Hague after a 2014 video surfaced of him kicking a dog.
Centerplate responded to the suit with a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, saying they would take the team on in court:
“Having been the Rays’ hospitality partner for 20 years, we are both stunned and disappointed by these allegations. After failing to come to financial terms on a new deal this season, we expected an orderly and amicable transition based on a tenure characterized by good relations and mutual respect. There is no basis for this last-minute action and we intend to vigorously defend our reputation in court.”
Since then, both sides have filed a flurry of angry court motions and rebuttals, irritating Judge Moody who wrote in his March 12 order “suffice to say that the parties are nothing short of furious with each other and their filings could best be described as vehement. But there is a point where strident rhetoric becomes counterproductive. And that is what has happened here.”
Moody wrote that despite the rhetoric, the Rays had made legitimate legal claims that needed to be litigated and noted that dismissing the case is “inappropriate at this stage of the proceeding” and “there is no legal basis to do so.”
All five of the Centerplate’s arguments for dismissal were denied, including arguments that the statue of limitations had passed and that indemnity agreements and other contracts were invalid.
Moody also addressed Tampa Bay’s claim that Hague’s dog-kicking incident hurt the baseball team’s brand, denying Centerplate’s request to strike the allegations from the suit.
“Centerplate argues that these allegations relate to ‘an embarrassing private matter involving Centerplate’s former CEO, which serves no other purpose than to tar and prejudice Centerplate through guilt by association,'” Moody wrote.
“The Concession Agreement required Centerplate’s staff to carry themselves in a professional manner. The complaint alleges that Centerplate acknowledged the harm the former CEO’s behavior caused its clients, including the Rays,” Moody wrote. “And the complaint alleges that the Rays suffered fan backlash related to the incident. The harsh remedy of striking the allegations is not appropriate here.”