By Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich The Buffalo News, N.Y.
Five former Buffalo Jills have something to cheer about after a State Supreme Court justice recently allowed them to move ahead with their wages lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills.
The team sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, but Justice Timothy J. Drury found enough evidence to indicate the Jills may be considered employees of the team.
"The Bills wanted to get out and failed," said attorney Marc Panepinto, who represents the five former Jills.
The women were members of the squad for periods between 2009 and 2012.
The former cheerleaders filed the civil lawsuit in April alleging they worked for free at games and at mandatory public appearances.
The women seek back wages and legal expenses. Their lawsuit names the Buffalo Bills, former manager Citadel Communications Co., and Stejon Productions Corp., which assumed management of the Jills in 2011.
"There's no justification for Stejon, Citadel or the Bills for not paying the Jills," Panepinto said.
Attorneys for the team and Citadel could not be reached to comment.
The Bills have contended the women were independent contractors and not employees of the team.
Two days after the lawsuit's filing, Stephanie Mateczun -- owner of Stejon -- suspended cheerleading operations.
Ironically, the Bills and Stejon were "finally going to step up to the plate this year and pay the cheerleaders, but the suit came and they shut down operations," Panepinto said.
Attorney Dennis Vacco, who represents Stejon, confirmed that plans were in the works to pay the cheerleaders.
"In reality, there were pre-litigation discussions where the Bills had offered to Stejon for the first time to fund the operation of the Jills so the cheerleaders could be compensated," Vacco said. "When the lawsuits were filed, the Bills withdrew that offer."
The five-figure amount to be offered the Jills would have been sufficient to compensate each cheerleader for game-day activities and for practices, Vacco said.
Vacco said that all along the Jills had been receiving other benefits, which included "free surgical procedures, free gym memberships, free tanning memberships and free tickets and parking to all Buffalo Bills home games."
Vacco also said the Buffalo Jills is a trademarked name owned by the Buffalo Bills.
"The Bills and Stejon were the last team to fail to pay their cheerleaders any money for any time worked," said Panepinto, who is working on the case with attorney Frank Dolce. "Every single other team in the NFL paid their cheerleaders at least for game-day activity."
The parties to the litigation are now engaged in the discovery process, Panepinto said.
"We want all the team's historical memos, contracts, correspondence between Citadel and Stejon for at least the last six years," Panepinto said.
Six years is the length of time for which a litigant can go back in a wage dispute, he said. "There are certainly emails back and forth between the team and Stephanie Mateczun that show there is a joint employer relationship, but really the crux of the decision is that (the motion to dismiss) was too early," Panepinto said. "There has to be discovery and depositions done about all of these issues."
Other National Football League teams -- the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders -- are involved in similar cheerleader lawsuits, Panepinto said.
The lawsuit against the Raiders is subject to mediation.
"The thing here is that the Bills were not willing to mediate, and we think that is disappointing," Panepinto said. "Both Citadel and Stejon, and ourselves were willing to sit down with a mediator and talk about a possible resolution, but the Bills just won't take responsibility -- even after the judge's decision."
"Stejon and Citadel have been very candid in discussion with us that they are co-employers with the Bills," he said. "The Bills are trying to shirk complete responsibility."
Court documents refer to the five plaintiffs by their first names and the first initial of their last names: Jaclyn S,, Alyssa U., Maria P., Melissa M., and Gina B.
"The five plaintiffs would love to resolve this situation with the team so the Buffalo Bills could move forward with their sale," Panepinto said. "We're talking about the Bills' value being just shy of a billion dollars. The Jills are an asset that increases the value of the Bills, but the lawsuit is a potential cost."