Saskatchewan Court Umpires a Baseball Dispute

In Keller v. Saskatchewan Baseball Assn. Inc. (decided 1999), Justice Pritchard of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench found that the Saskatchewan Baseball Association had acted oppressively in refusing to stay the suspension of one of its officers until his appeal was heard, and held that the association's appeals committee needed to be reconstituted to ensure that it was impartial.

1. Facts

Keller was an extraordinarily active member of the Saskatchewan Baseball Association Inc. ("SBA"), a corporation incorporated under the Saskatchewan Non-profit Corporations Act, 1995, concurrently serving, among other things, as president of the Melville Minor Baseball Association, the South Saskatchewan Midget Baseball League, the Parkland Minor Baseball League and the Terry Puhl Foundation, as well as coaching two separate minor league teams.

At the beginning of the 1999 season, Keller wrote a letter which he distributed and read at a public meeting in Melville. The SBA took offence to the letter, finding that his conduct was improper, unbecoming and contrary to the reputation and interests of the SBA and the game of baseball.

As a result, the SBA suspended Keller for two months running from mid-May to mid-July, 1999. Keller appealed his suspension to the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench.

2. Rulings

(a) SBA's Refusal to Stay the Suspension was Unfairly Prejudicial

The SBA's appeals committee met on May 24 without Keller or his lawyer in attendance. The SBA knew that Keller's lawyer was out of the province at the time. Nor was the lawyer advised that the meeting was proceeding. The best the lawyer could do was submit a five-page hand-written memorandum which he faxed to the committee from British Columbia.

Furthermore, the president of the SBA had previously agreed to a stay. There was only a confusion over the terms of the stay.

Justice Pritchard found that the penalty imposed by the commissioner was severe and that there should be compelling reasons to justify a refusal to agree to a stay pending the appeal. The refusal to grant a stay indicated that the appeals committee had either prejudged the appeal (determining that it would likely fail) or failed to consider the overwhelmingly prejudicial effect that serving all or a portion of the suspension would have on Keller if his appeal was ultimately successful.

Accordingly, Justice Pritchard held that the appeals committee's decision was unfairly prejudicial to Keller and ordered that his suspension be stayed, pending the determination of his appeal.

(b) Requirement to Impanel an Impartial Appeals Committee

The by-laws of the SBA explicitly required the president to appoint an impartial appeals committee.

One of the appointed members of the appeals committee was Mr. Charlie Meacher. Keller and Meacher had clashed in the past over the politics of baseball and were involved in rival leagues.

Meacher acknowledged the disagreement that he had with Keller on the issue of conflict between the rival organizations but stated that he had no animosity to Keller and that Meacher's connection with the rival organization did not affect his ability to be impartial on the hearing of Keller's appeal. Without contradicting Meacher, Justice Pritchard deftly handled the impartiality issue as follows:

I am satisfied that at the midget level the conflict between the two organizations runs very deep. As an individual, Mr. Meacher may have the ability to put this personal conflict aside and fairly decide the issues on the appeal. However, fairness requires that Keller be reasonably satisfied that to the extent possible those who decide his appeal not only be impartial but appear to be impartial. In the circumstances, Mr. Meacher should not have been a member of the Appeal Committee.

Because she found that Meacher should not have been appointed to the appeals committee which would decide Keller's fate, and that the appeals committee's refusal to grant a suspension pending the appeal was unfairly prejudicial to Keller, Justice Pritchard held that fairness dictated that an entirely new committee be appointed to hear Keller's appeal, none of the members of which could be associated with the rival leagues. She noted that, while in other cases involving volunteer organizations, it is often difficult to find individuals who do not know the parties involved in the dispute or do not have some level of personal interest in the issues, those factors were not present in the case of the SBA, which had members throughout the province.

3. Key Observations

The Keller case illustrates the application of two important principles in the discipline of members by voluntary organizations.

First, if the association has an internal appeal process, it is crucial to impanel the decision-making committee with the most unbiased individuals available. Courts are scrupulous about impartiality. As the court in this case observed, it is not always easy to populate an appeals committee with completely disinterested individuals. However, if the organization is large and diverse enough to find disinterested individuals, it must do so. The organization is asking for trouble if it can impanel a completely impartial committee but chooses not to do so.

Second, in dealing with the member, the organization must take into account not only its own interests but also the interests of the impugned member and those who could be collaterally affected by his suspension. Keller's offence did not put the health or well-being of any players at risk. His offence only involved the politics of baseball. Therefore, the association should have given less weight to the need for an immediate suspension and taken into consideration the practical effect that a two-month suspension would have on Keller (whose life was devoted to amateur baseball in Saskatchewan). The confusion over the terms of the agreed stay no doubt contributed to the court's willingness to impose a stay.

Plowing ahead with the meeting of the appeals committee without proper notice to Keller or his lawyer and while Keller's lawyer was known to be away also contributed to aura of bias and the disregard of Keller's right to a fair and impartial hearing.

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