It’s been more than five years since retired New York Knicks star Charles Oakley was forcibly—and, Oakley insists, illegally—ejected from Madison Square Garden as he sat a few rows behind Knicks owner James Dolan. Earlier this week, Oakley’s attorneys petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to reverse a trial judge’s decision to toss his toss-based lawsuit.
The circumstances for Oakley’s ejection remain a point of contention, with attorneys for Oakley and Dolan offering starkly different accounts of the “facts.”
Some context is helpful.
For years, the 58-year-old Oakley has openly complained about what he portrays as an orchestrated Knicks shunning. While the team has invited retired stars to MSG to celebrate their accomplishments, Oakley says he’s been ignored and instead attends games as a spectator. The 19-year NBA veteran, who played for the Knicks from 1988 to 1998, has also been rebuffed in efforts to land a job with the franchise. Oakley’s apparent exclusion has coincided with his sharp criticisms of Dolan, who Oakley gripes “disrespects” him. In 2015, Oakley went so far as to disparage Dolan as a “motherf—–.”
During the Feb. 8, 2017, game between the Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers, Oakley says he saw Dolan speak with a security guard, who then walked to Oakley’s row. The guard then stopped and, as Oakley tells it, touched his ear to indicate he was communicating through an earpiece. Then several security guards positioned themselves at the end of Oakley’s aisle. At that point, Oakley’s attorneys contend, Dolan made “an aggressive downward-pointing gesture, apparently directing the guards to ‘take Oakley down.’” The guards then “marched in almost military-like formation towards Oakley, surrounding him on three sides.” Oakley was asked to leave MSG.
Whether Oakley “had to” leave presented a combative question.
Game tickets are revocable licenses to enter, and remain, in an arena and to sit in a particular seat. A ticket can be revoked if the fan engages in unruly conduct, including heckling and other forms of disruption. A revoked license converts the ticket holder into a trespasser.
Dolan later claimed on the Michael Kay Show that Oakley “came into the Garden with an agenda” consisting of “abusive behavior, stuff you wouldn’t want to say on the radio.” He went so far as to say Oakley “has a problem with anger. He’s both physically and verbally abusive. He may have a problem with alcohol.” Oakley, meanwhile, insists he had done nothing wrong. He says he was “genially interacting with fans” as he watched the Knicks play.
One of the guards allegedly asked Oakley, “Why are you sitting so close to Mr. Dolan?” The guards then tried to detain Oakley, a 6-9 former forward who was lauded during his career for his physical style of play, by pushing and shoving him, finally forcing him to the ground.
Oakley eventually left his seat, but not without further altercation.
Attorneys for Dolan claim “the Garden’s internal footage showing him repeatedly striking MSG security guards as they and NYPD officers attempted to escort him out of the arena that fateful night.” Oakley, who maintains that he raised his arms up “in a universal sign of non-aggression,” says he was dragged to the ground. He was later charged with misdemeanor charges for trespass and assault, but the case was resolved in a plea deal.
Oakley sued Dolan and MSG on multiple grounds, including assault and battery. He argues the guards used “unreasonable force” to eject him. SDNY Judge Richard Sullivan dismissed the lawsuit in 2018, concluding “the guards were not required to justify their request [to Oakley], and Oakley’s admitted refusal to comply is what justified their use of force.” He also reasoned that Oakley had failed to explain how the force was unreasonable. “Nowhere,” the judge wrote, “does Oakley allege that the guards intended to injure him . . . it was only after Oakley slapped the guards’ hands away ‘in self-defense’ that three more security guards arrived on the scene and forced him to the ground . . . nowhere [does Oakley] allege that he was in fact injured.”
Oakley appealed, and in 2020 the Second Circuit ordered Judge Sullivan to reconsider the case. Claims of an “intensely factual nature,” Judge Jon O. Newman wrote, are “best left for a jury to decide.” However, last year Judge Sullivan ruled against Oakley for a second time. In granting summary judgment for MSG, Sullivan determined that Oakley’s account was “blatantly contradicted” by MSG’s video and that Oakley had merely “tripped” rather than being shoved.
Oakley is now appealing again, arguing in a 45-page brief that Judge Sullivan wrongly “assumed the role of factfinder.” Summary judgment is only appropriate when there is no genuine dispute as to material facts. Oakley’s attorneys argue that there are genuine disputes about key facts. They include why “Dolan amassed a small army to surround and confront a seated Oakley” and “how much force was appropriate to effectuate Oakley’s removal from the Garden.”
Oakley also maintains that Judge Sullivan too deferentially relied on MSG videos, which offer an angle not seen from Oakley or Dolan during the altercation. To bolster that point, Oakley cites a law review article by Boston University law professor Jessica Silbey. In Cross-Examining Film, Silbey wrote that “film makes spectators feel as though they are witnessing the event or object as the event or object existed when filmed. However, film re-presents the event or object as something never before seen.”
Here, Oakley maintains, available video likely corroborates, not refutes, Oakley’s version of history. “The video clips,” his attorneys say, “show that Oakley enters the arena; sits down and watches the game without incident.”
Oakley’s legal team includes Douglas Wigdor, the attorney representing Brian Flores in his civil rights lawsuit against the NFL.