WILMINGTON, Delaware – A judge Monday urged the Dolan family and Altice USA to negotiate an out-of-court settlement of the family's lawsuit over layoffs by Altice at News 12 Networks, saying, “This is an incredibly close case.”
The direction from Delaware Chancery Court Judge Joseph R. Slights III came at the end of a two-hour hearing on Altice’s motion to dismiss the Dolans’ suit, which was filed last year.
The Dolans allege that job cuts at News 12 in 2017 violated the 2016 sales agreement under which Altice USA's parent, Altice N.V. of the Netherlands, acquired Cablevision Systems Corp. of Bethpage and its News 12 division.
After listening to lawyers for both sides, the judge said, “Neither side has the high road to say this [sales] agreement is so clear."
He told an Altice USA lawyer, "You are asking me to be the first Delaware judge to say…[the no News 12 layoffs] provision is a gesture of goodwill and not enforceable.” That would be unusual in contract law, he said.
Slights also questioned the Dolans’ right to sue Altice. “What you are asking me to do is make your clients parties. You are asking me to go through a series of gymnastics,” he told a Dolan lawyer.
The case has gotten to this point because previous settlement talks between the Dolans and Altice broke down.
Earlier Monday, Altice lawyer Jay Cohen argued the case should be thrown out because the plaintiffs – Cablevision founder Charles F. Dolan, his wife Helen and their sons James and Patrick -- lack the right to sue. Cablevision, not the Dolans, sold itself for $17.7 billion and only Cablevision, which no longer exists, can file suit, Cohen said.
Dolan lawyer Robert M. Hoffman said the family members can sue because they were the controlling shareholders of Cablevision. They only agreed to sell the company after receiving assurances that no News 12 employees would lose their jobs for five years, he said. Altice violated that covenant when it terminated 70 News 12 employees in 2017 and planned further cuts, Hoffman said.
The Altice lawyer countered that the no-News 12-layoffs covenant didn't make it into the final sales agreement.
In September, the Dolans sued Altice to prevent additional News 12 job cuts and to restore the work force to its 2016 level of 462 workers. The family said Altice planned to lay off “an additional 10 percent of the [News 12] staff in each successive year.”
In February, the Dolans and Altice agreed there would be no further News 12 layoffs until a Sept. 4-6 trial in Wilmington. The trial will not take place if the judge grants Altice’s request to dismiss the case.
“I will issue a decision as promptly as possible,” Slights said in the courtroom, where there were six lawyers for the Dolans and five for Altice.
Charles Dolan started News 12 and Patrick Dolan was the network’s longtime president. Patrick Dolan now is owner of Newsday Media Group.