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Judge in Eli Manning memorabilia case asked to step aside — again

Giants quarterback Eli Manning  after training camp in East

Giants quarterback Eli Manning  after training camp in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. Manning has been accused of memorabilia fraud. No trial date has been set. Credit: Brad Penner

The New Jersey judge overseeing the lawsuit that accuses Giants quarterback Eli Manning of memorabilia fraud has been asked to step aside — for the second time during this case — because he is an admitted longtime Giants fan who owns two personal seat licenses at MetLife Stadium.

Superior Court Judge James J. DeLuca declined the initial request to recuse himself two years ago by the sports memorabilia collectors who are suing Manning and the Giants, saying his ownership of two PSLs for Giants home games “has nothing to do with” the lawsuit.

An attorney for the memorabilia collectors said in a new court filing last week, obtained by Newsday, that recent changes to New Jersey’s code of conduct for judges now require them to step aside from cases if they have “a financial interest in an enterprise related to the litigation.”

Brian Brook, who represents the memorabilia collectors, said in the filing in Bergen County Superior Court that the judge’s ownership of a PSL represents a conflict of interest because its monetary value could be negatively affected by the outcome of this lawsuit.

Brook told Newsday he doesn’t question the judge’s intentions and “we believe he’s trying to be fair.” But citing the changes to the code of conduct, Brook said, “the PSL ownership requires Judge DeLuca to step aside and let another judge preside.” He added that the adverse rulings he referenced in his filing “diminish” the appearance of impartiality.

DeLuca did not return a message by Newsday seeking comment.

The Giants sold personal seat licenses (PSL) beginning in 2008 to help fund the construction of the new Meadowlands stadium, charging from $1,000 to $20,000 per seat. A PSL gives the buyer control over a seat and the right to buy season tickets for games. PSL owners can sell them at any cost that a potential buyer is willing to pay.

DeLuca revealed his ties to the Giants when he took over the case in May 2015, telling attorneys that he’s been a Giants fan “since the late 1950s, early 1960s” and had purchased two PSLs before MetLife Stadium opened in 2010 at the suggestion of his son.

The judge said then that his son pays for the tickets, that he goes to “one or two games” a season and later added that he pays for the tickets for the games he attends.

Legal experts are split on whether the judge should recuse himself.

Anthony Giacobbe, Jr., a New York sports and entertainment attorney, said the recent change in New Jersey’s judicial code of conduct regarding a judge’s financial interest fits the framework of this case and, also, “allows the judge to recuse himself without contradicting or changing the prior ruling.”

Giacobbe added that doing so would be in line with a common practice in which courts “should go out of their way to avoid any appearance of bias whatsoever.”

However, Alan Milstein, a New Jersey attorney who has represented athletes such as Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, said the judge shouldn’t have to step aside because the primary purpose of buying a PSL is to gain season tickets, not as a financial investment.

“No season ticket holder who has been required to buy a PSL considers the PSL an investment like a share of stock,” he said. “It is simply a means for the team to get more revenue for the seats.”

Milstein added that PSLs are “not traded on the open market” and “don’t get listed as assets on financial disclosure forms or on loan applications.”

The lawsuit was filed in January 2014 by sports memorabilia entrepreneur Eric Inselberg. It has been amended to include memorabilia collectors Michael Jakab and Sean Godown.

The suit alleges that Manning and Giants equipment manager Joe Skiba passed off regular Giants helmets and jerseys to be sold as game-used by sports memorabilia company Steiner Sports, which also is named as a defendant. Other defendants include Giants co-owner John Mara, general counsel William Heller and assistant equipment manager Ed Skiba.

A trial had been set for Sept. 25, but Deluca indefinitely postponed that in a June ruling without explanation. The memorabilia collectors’ filing said the reason the judge gave was that they missed a May discovery deadline. Attorneys for the memorabilia collectors say in the filing that deadline did not apply to them, “as we have pointed out to the court on multiple occasions.”

No new trial date has been set. The Giants’ season begins Sunday night in Dallas.

New York Sports