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NFL seeks to be dismissed from lawsuit by former Jills over wages

An attorney for the National Football League was in a Buffalo courtroom Tuesday asking a judge to dismiss the league as a defendant in a lawsuit by former Buffalo Jills cheerleaders against the Buffalo Bills and others over wages.

The argument focused on 2007 and 2009 broadcast rights contracts between the Bills and the team’s former radio broadcaster. The contracts included a stamp bearing the signature of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell below the word “APPROVED.”

The suit says the contracts also gave Citadel Broadcasting the exclusive rights to run the Jills cheerleading squad and required Citadel to have each member of the Jills sign independent contractor agreements that the Jills would not be paid for working Bills games, despite a 1995 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that the Jills were employees, not independent contractors, and therefore had to be paid at least minimum wage.

The suit accuses the NFL of aiding and abetting the Bills in the allegedly fraudulent scheme to misclassify the Jills as independent contractors and of unjustly enriching itself by its conduct. It seeks payment for the Jills’ services.

Steven Hurd, representing the NFL, said the NFL’s approval of the contracts was needed only for the broadcasting rights, not the provisions related to the Jills. He said the NFL was not the Jills’ employer, a fact that the plaintiffs acknowledge, and was not responsible for the alleged misclassification of the Jills.

As a result, he said, the NFL should not be a defendant in the lawsuit, and the three claims against it should be dismissed.

But Sean E. Cooney, one of the attorneys for the former Jills, said that without the NFL commissioner’s signature, the contracts would not be viable. He said Goodell’s signature allowed the misclassification to continue.

State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Drury said he would rule as soon as possible on the NFL’s motion to dismiss.

Caitlin Ferrari of Rochester, a Jill during the 2009-10 season, filed the suit last year on behalf of herself and other former Jills. The suit named the Bills; Cumulus Radio Co., formerly known as Citadel Broadcasting Co.; and Stephanie E. Mateczun, a former Citadel employee who ran the Jills.

The suit contends that the Jills worked for free at games and at mandatory public appearances and that they are employees, not independent contractors as the Bills contend, and should be paid at least the minimum wage under state law.

Cooney said Ferrari and the other former Jills didn’t include the NFL in the suit initially because they didn’t learn of Goodell’s signing and approval of the contracts and the provision requiring the Jills to sign the cheerleading agreement until the Bills included copies of the contracts in the team’s unsuccessful bid to have itself dismissed as a defendant.

In January, Drury granted the former Jills’ motion to add the NFL as a defendant, along with Stejon Productions Corp., which later took over as manager of the Jills.

email: jstaas@buffnews.com

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