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7th Circuit reverses dismissal of NCAA illegal ticket-lottery suit

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed a proposed class action case claiming the National Collegiate Athletic Association operates an illegal lottery to sell tickets to certain sporting events to go forward.

Judge William T. Lawrence of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, had dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice on the NCAA’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 9(b). Plaintiffs Tom George and others applied for tickets to NCAA men’s basketball games through NCAA-owned websites. In order to apply for tickets for the men’s Final Four, applicants may submit a single application with up to 10 entries and the full face value of the tickets plus a $6 non-refundable handling fee. Applicants can only win once and would get at most two tickets. Refunds would be sent to applicants according to whether they won or not, but the $6 handling fee on each entry would not be returned.

The plaintiffs alleged the ticket-distribution system constitutes an unlawful lottery because there are far more applicants than tickets available and the handling fee bears no relation to the cost of running the lottery. They also sued Ticketmaster and settled on most of the charges.  

In Tom George, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Association 09-3667, the majority on the 7th Circuit found distinction between the instant case and Lesher v. Baltimore Football Club, 496 N.E.2d 785, 789 (Ind. Ct. App. 1986), on which the District Court relied to dismiss the case. In Lesher, all applicants submitted the face value of tickets sought plus a handling fee. Losers were reimbursed the full amount, plus the fee. The Lesher court held the process wasn’t a lottery because no prize had been awarded and ticket winners got nothing of greater value because losers received a full refund.

But in the instant case, the NCAA kept the handling fee. The plaintiffs also alleged the existence of a prize not present in Lesher: the scarcity of the tickets makes those tickets far more valuable than the cost to purchase.

The plaintiffs have alleged all elements of a lottery: they paid a per-ticket or per-entry fee (consideration) to enter a random drawing (chance) in hopes of obtaining scarce, valuable tickets (a prize), wrote Judge John W. Darrah of the Northern District of Illinois, who is sitting by designation.

The majority also found the District Court erred in holding that the doctrine of in pari delicto barred the plaintiffs from seeking relief from the court.

“Indiana law makes it unlawful to conduct lotteries or otherwise gamble knowingly. As alleged, the NCAA’s act of knowingly conducting an unlawful lottery demonstrates a greater degree of fault than Plaintiffs’ act of unwittingly entering that lottery,” wrote the judge.

Since the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged the NCAA operated an unlawful lottery, the 7th Circuit reversed the order on all counts and remanded for further proceedings.

Judge Richard Cudahy dissented, finding the instant case indistinguishable from Lesher.

“There are other reasons for excluding this process of ticket distribution from being classified as an illegal ‘lottery,’” he wrote. “One of these is the statutory exemption for ‘bona fide transactions that are valid under the law of contracts.’ This is a very open-ended exemption that is easily applicable to this device -- incidental to allocating scarce tickets for popular sports events.”
 

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