The legal battle between retired New York Knicks star Charles Oakley and Knicks owner James Dolan has entered round three. The case revolves around Oakley’s ejection from Madison Square Garden more than six years ago, and it has ramifications that go beyond sports.
Last Friday, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a trial court’s grant of summary judgment for Dolan and Madison Square Garden and remanded the case for further proceedings. This is the second time the appellate court has returned the case to the trial court, this time reasoning the trial judge erred in assuming how a jury would assess the incident.
Oakley and Dolan have feuded for years. Oakley, 59, last played for the Knicks in 1998 and has since been openly critical, sometimes through obscenities, of Dolan’s ownership. Oakley says he has received inferior treatment compared to other former Knicks stars, including by having to buy tickets to attend Knicks games.
Oakley and Dolan offered conflicting accounts about the Feb. 8, 2017, game between the Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers where Oakley sat a few rows behind Dolan. A guard apparently asked Oakley why he was sitting so close to Dolan. Guards then moved in to detain the 6-foot-9-inch former power forward. Oakley resisted. He was pushed and shoved and fell to the ground. As Oakley was escorted out of the MSG, he scuffled with the guards.
Oakley sued Dolan and MSG for assault and battery, among other claims. The key legal question is whether the guards applied reasonable or unreasonable force in removing Oakley.
In 2021, Judge Richard Sullivan granted summary judgment to MSG based on video recordings of the incident. “There is no interpretation of the video footage,” Sullivan wrote, “that could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that the degree of force used by MSG security guards to remove Oakley from the Garden was objectively unreasonable.”
But in last Friday’s order, Judges Guido Calabresi, Richard Wesley and Beth Robinson disagreed with that conclusion. They suggested a jury—not a judge—ought to “sort out what exactly happened” given the jury’s role as a fact-finder.
The three judges noted there is only one video that captures the initial encounter, and it is deficient. The video lacks sound, has a low frame rate and “produces a choppy and degraded video quality that does not depict a continuous flow of activity.”
The judges also deemed inconclusive whether the security guards resorted to force only after Oakley, allegedly, “escalated the situation.” One video shows Oakley falling to the side while being surrounded by security guards. None of these videos “clearly shows Oakley’s feet and lower legs” meaning it’s uncertain whether Oakley “merely lost his footing” or was forced down.
The judges further stressed that Sullivan paused the pretrial discovery process, which entails both sides answering questions under oath, facing questions from opposing counsel and sharing evidence. The judges worried that the limited discovery “may affect Oakley’s substantial rights” given “the limitations of the video evidence in this case.”
The case now returns to the trial court. Both MSG and attorneys for Oakley, who is represented by Douglas Wigdor (the attorney for Brian Flores), issued statements pledging they’ll continue to litigate. It’s possible the parties could reach an out-of-court settlement, but it’s telling they haven’t done so already. It seems there is real bad blood between Oakley and Dolan that might motivate each to try their hand before a jury of New Yorkers.
The facts in Oakley v. Dolan et al. are unusually dramatic and seemingly unlikely to recur. A former NBA star is taking on his nemesis, the owner of an NBA team, over his forced removal from a game.
But the case has led to detailed rulings at the federal appellate and district court level regarding how security guards should engage with unruly spectators. While Oakley v. Dolan et al. may have an element of absurdity, and while the appellate rulings have been by summary order (which means they do not formally establish precedent), they will set important guidance for how much force arenas, stadiums, ballparks and other facilities can use in removing spectators.
The impact of Oakley’s case goes well beyond sports, too. Oakley’s arguments reveal the limitations of video evidence when it conflicts with witness testimony, a point future litigants will note.