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America's Cup - Oracle Team USA win Kiwi sailor dismissal case

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com on 13 Aug 2015
Joe Spooner (forward) grinding in the 34th America’’s Cup - Final Match - Racing Day 10 ACEA /Gilles Martin-Raget
Oracle Team USA has won a case brought in the Northern District Court of California, by a crew member who had been with the team for 11 years.

Former New Zealand Finn sailor, Joe Spooner (40) had been signed on for the 35th America's Cup despite initial reservations by Oracle Team USA CEO, Russell Coutts that he was too old, and was past his physical peak.

Spooner argued differently, citing his fitness and strength testing data compared to the rest of the OTUSA crew, and Coutts altered his original decision.

A former member of Team New Zealand, for the 2003 America's Cup in Auckland, Spooner was a top Finn sailor. In 1997 he suffered a savage assault that left him with a fractured skull and memory loss. He had been a training partner for Finn and America's Cup sailor, Craig Monk at the 1996 Olympics in Savannah, Georgia.

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To allow Spooner to work for the team in USA, Oracle Team USA supported Spooner's case for a US Visa O-1 Visa for an 'athlete of extraordinary achievement to participate in an athletic event or a series of such events'. Spooner had been with Oracle Team USA and its renditions for 11 years and had sailed in four campaigns for the team.

At that point, Spooner was expecting that the 35th America's Cup would be sailed in a US venue.

He entered into a contract with Oracle Team USA which saw him paid $7,500 per month from Feb 1 to June 30, 2014 and $25,000 per month until a week after the end of the final race for the 35th America's Cup. A win bonus was also on offer.

In fact, Spooner didn't sign a full contract but a Heads of Agreement, which became the operative document between Oracle Racing Inc and Spooner's company Allegro Yachting Ltd.

Spooner alleges that he signed the contract “under pressure” due to rumors that Coutts might withdraw unsigned contracts out of frustration with other sailors considering offers from other teams.

In December of 2014, Bermuda was selected as the venue for the 35th America's Cup, and Oracle Racing issued a “relocation plan” outlining compensation, travel, and housing arrangements for its employees. From previous documents filed with the Court, it is believed that approximately $4,000 was offered per month to compensate crew relocating to Bermuda. Spooner checked out accommodation options for his family in Bermuda and believed that $7,000/mth was a more reasonable amount.

Spooner determined that his relocation compensation would not adequately cover the cost of relocating his family to Bermuda, and requested a salary increase from $25,000 per month to $38,000 per month.

Spooner was initially told that compensation was not negotiable, says the Judgement, but team manager Tom Slingsby later told Spooner that Coutts and general manager Grant Simmer might be willing to compromise. Spooner sent an email to Oracle Racing leadership on January 15, 2015, stating that he had “made a commitment to Oracle Team USA, and [was] therefore not prepared to resign,” but asked that Oracle Racing provide third-party mediation of his request for greater compensation.

The next day, Simmer sent a letter to Spooner and Allegro stating that Oracle Racing would not increase compensation or provide mediation, and that “in light of Spooner's stated position that [he would] not otherwise relocate to Bermuda,” Oracle Racing was giving notice of termination of the contract effective January 31, 2015, said the Judgement.

In Court, it was determined that Spooner was a contractor of Oracle Racing Inc and not an employee.

It was also held that the America's Cup campaign was not a 'voyage' as could be claimed if Spooner were a seaman on a ship and had signed on for the duration of a voyage.

The Court determined that Oracle Racing Inc was within its rights in terminating Allegro Yachting and Spooner's contract at two weeks notice ending on January 31, 2015.

Previously Spooner had successfully had a writ attached to one of Oracle Team USA's AC45's to prevent it being shipped from San Francisco to Bermuda. The writ was lifted after a short while.

The parties had also agreed to enter into mediation, On July 17 before a retired Judge, but this failed, and the matter was resolved in front of Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in the San Francisco-based Court in a Decision dated August 10, 2015. No order on costs has yet been made.

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