As the United States Open began on Monday, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) remains involved a lawsuit alleging that between 2005 and 2011, it violated state and federal labor laws by denying proper wages and overtime pay to its chair umpires and line judges.
In a sport where the actions of tennis officials on court have drawn several angry outbursts in recent years from players, including a pair of high-profile protests by Serena Williams at the Open, the legal action might lift a curtain on a rarely noticed friction behind the scenes at the tournament.
The U.S.T.A. invites about 300 certified chair and line umpires to New York each year to officiate at the Open. It pays their travel expenses and most hotel, meal, and incidental costs over two and a half weeks.
The umpires receive between $115 and $250 per day, depending on their U.S.T.A. certification levels. An article in The New York Times last year reported that the United States Open offered the top umpires the lowest compensation among the Grand Slam events. The lawsuit, filed last September, claims the umpires are entitled to employee status and overtime pay for late matches, which sometimes end after midnight with no additional compensation.
The plaintiffs are Steven Meyer of Boca Raton, Fla.; Marc Bell of Delray Beach, Fla.; Larry Mulligan-Gibbs of Elkins Park, Pa.; and Aimee Johnson of West Monroe, La. Meyer and Johnson are lawyers, Mulligan-Gibbs a pharmaceutical company executive, and Bell a manager for a paving contractor. Their lawyers declined to make them available for comment.
Since April, the plaintiffs have been seeking a U.S.T.A. address list that would identify about 300 chair umpires and line callers who are working at this year's Open. The law permits the umpires to use the list to notify fellow workers who might be eligible to join a class action lawsuit. The U.S.T.A. has been resisting the request.
In July, Andrew Carter, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, ruled in favor of the umpires' request for the addresses but deferred a decision on the timing of their release.
The U.S.T.A. has argued that turning over the addresses before or during the tournament had "the potential for disruption" at its signature event.
"We believe U.S. Open officials take great pride in their involvement with the U.S. Open, and they won't do anything that will jeopardize the quality of the tournament," said Chris Widmaier, the association's managing director for corporate communications.
In court papers, the U.S.T.A said that sharing the addresses might "turn the U.S. Open into an unregulated forum for umpires to debate the merits of this lawsuit in a highly public environment with significant media attention."
Orin Kurtz, a lawyer for the umpires, said, "I don't how it would disrupt."
In court papers, the plaintiffs claimed that for more than five years, they were among hundreds of fellow umpires improperly listed as independent contractors.
The U.S.T.A. argued that the umpires are not employees because federal and state statutes exempt it from wage and overtime requirements, based in part on its status a recreational organization. The U.S.T.A. said the law was meant to exempt minor league baseball teams, state fairs, racetracks and similar organizations.
In a June letter to the judge, Kurtz said the United States Open could not qualify as a recreational establishment under the law.
Kurtz's letter argued that the "largest tennis organization in the world" with 750,000 members was "a far cry from a minor league baseball organization that operates only during summer months."
Dan Falasky, the U.S.T.A.'s senior counsel for professional tennis, said, "We believe that on the facts these officials are independent contractors and not employees."
The umpires "suffered no damages," said a U.S.T.A. legal brief, because it paid them "all wages and compensation to which plaintiffs may be entitled."
Asked how much his four clients were owed, Kurtz said the wages in dispute amount to "no more than a couple" of thousand dollars apiece.
The U.S.T.A announced last month that it was increasing player prize money by about 18 per cent, or more than $2 million, to $25.5 million at this year's Open. Widmaier declined to reveal the tournament's budget for officiating at this year's championships.