SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Ruling from the bench, a federal judge dismissed an America’s Cup sailor’s lawsuit against Oracle Team USA, saying his claims bordered on frivolous.
Matthew Mitchell sued Oracle racing in July 2015, claiming it scapegoated him for a crewmate’s rule violation before the 34th America’s Cup.
The crewmate, Simeon Tienpont, added too much weight to a part of the boat called the kingpost by filling it with resin. The America’s Cup jury disciplined several of Mitchell’s crewmates on Oracle Team USA for the violation and suspended Mitchell from sailing in the first four races of the America’s Cup.
In its verdict, the jury wrote that “Matt knew that the kingpost was heavy. It should have been apparent to a sailor of Matt’s experience that when finding a kingpost that was nearly 2.5 times heavier than the norm, its legality was obviously questionable.”
U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria on Thursday told Mitchell’s attorney Patricia Barlow, “It seems your client is barking up the wrong tree, if he has a tree to bark up at all.”
Chhabria asked Barlow: “How can you possibly establish that Oracle racing’s conduct caused the jury verdict against your client?”
Barlow said she had recently learned that Oracle Racing suppressed exonerating evidence against Mitchell, which a member of the jury had told her would have been “a game changer.”
Tienpont allegedly laughed about weighing down the kingpost, she said, but a crewmate who would have testified to this was cowed by the team’s admonition to keep quiet about the investigation.
Chhabria said he didn’t see how that changed things for Mitchell.
“If a team is under investigation, there is nothing wrong with telling the team members they can’t talk about it amongst themselves or tell their wives,” he said. “There’s no indication that anybody on the racing team prevented or threatened anybody to keep them from talking to the jury or cooperating with the investigation.”
He added: “Frankly, this lawsuit, if it’s not frivolous, it’s borderline frivolous.”
It took Chhabria only a few minutes to hand down his ruling. He spent most of the hearing upbraiding Barlow for her conduct in the case, particularly for restating Mitchell’s contract claim verbatim in her amended complaint after Chhabria had ruled that Oracle had not breached its employment contract with Mitchell by failing to fire Tienpont.
“Part of the problem here is that you don’t seem to understand how things work in federal court,” Chhabria said, obviously vexed at Barlow’s attempts to build the case through discovery.
“You can’t take depositions for the purpose of gaining the ability to state a claim. You have to state a claim before you start taking depositions,” the judge said.
Chhabria continued: “It seems like you’re using the court as a vehicle to allow your client to complain about stuff. He thinks he took the fall for something somebody else did, but there’s no cause of action he has against Oracle Racing. The federal court is not a forum for people to complain about how things are going in their lives.”
Barlow apologized to the court, saying she represented Mitchell, a fellow New Zealander, pro bono and that her motive in pursuing the claims was pure.
Chhabria said: “You can file a frivolous lawsuit even if you don’t believe it was frivolous. You have an obligation to be objective and not just be a mouthpiece for someone to complain about how things went down.”
Chhabria said he did not see why he shouldn’t sanction Barlow, but he did not.
“I’m going to let you off with a warning this time,” he said.
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