SAN FRANCISCO – A group of golf caddies has taken its case against the PGA Tour to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after a district court judge dismissed the suit in February.
Richard Meadow, the national mass torts leader for the Lanier Law Firm, which represents the caddies, told the Northern California Record that he thinks it is “an opportune time” for the PGA to settle the case, which lays out allegations of the Tour’s poor treatment of caddies. Caddies are employed by players, not the PGA.
“I think the caddies are mistreated by the PGA, and the PGA should be embarrassed by how they treat them,” he said. “This is a sport that’s generating hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re trying to appeal to a real cross-section of the country ... and they treat the normal everyday guy who’s trying to make a living not even as well as hired help. It seems like it’s 18th century treatment of a 21st century sport. The caddies are very valuable participants with their players. The players count on them a lot.”
To participate in a tournament, caddies are required to sign a contract with the PGA. The contract requires them to wear a uniform established by the organizer.
The caddies – 168 in total – allege that the PGA Tour can’t require them to wear bibs during tournaments that display corporate sponsorships. They brought several claims, including breach of contract. The suit states that the contract does not explicitly require bibs, and they violate the caddies’ rights of publicity by using their likeness or identity without consent. The suit estimates the sponsor logos printed across their chests bring in $50 million each season for the PGA.
The caddies also allege that the bibs prevent caddies from pursuing sponsorships of their own, in part because the bib covers other valuable advertising space.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California dismissed the case, concluding that the caddies agreed to the bibs because they agreed to wear a uniform, which has included a bib for decades.
Tyler Ochoa, a professor in the High Tech Law Institute at the Santa Clara University School of Law, told the Record that the right of publicity gives an individual the power to stop someone from using his or her likeness or image commercially without permission.
“There is no question that displaying a sponsor's logo on a bib is a commercial purpose, so that caddies cannot be required to wear such an advertisement without their consent,” he said. “Thus, the only question is whether the caddies have consented to wear sponsor's bibs.”
He said he thinks the judge “reasonably interpreted” the caddies’ contract with the PGA because the contract allows the organizer to determine what they’ll wear.
In the lawsuit, the caddies contend that they’re coerced into signing the contract because they couldn’t make a living without doing so.
“The caddies allege that the Tour 'threatened to and attempted to interfere with (the caddies') business relationships with their respective players and individual sponsors’ if they would not agree to wear the bibs,” court documents state.
But the judge dismissed this as well, saying the argument “is not plausible.”
“It might be one thing if someone became a professional caddie in reliance on the notion that a significant portion of his income would come from logos displayed on shirts he wore during tournaments, only later to be forced to choose either to stop making that money or to stop practicing his trade,” Chhabria said, according to court documents. “It is another thing for someone to embark upon a profession whose practitioners have long been required to wear bibs, and who therefore have not been able to display logos on the part of the shirt covered by the bib.”
To Ochoa, this is a more surprising decision.
“I could certainly see some judges who might have said we should take discovery into that part of the claim,” he said.
The suit puts the caddies’ complaints into a broader context of poor treatment by the PGA Tour. For example, when play was suspended because of weather at a tournament in February 2015, players and other people were allowed to go inside, but caddies were left to find shelter in their cars or beneath an open metal shed.
Chhabria acknowledged this in his decision to dismiss the case. He said, “The caddies' overall complaint about poor treatment by the Tour has merit, but this federal lawsuit about bibs does not.”
Meadow said he thinks the judge dismissed the case too early.
“He made assumptions,” he said. “I think that’s premature without having some discovery. He shouldn’t have done that.”