Published January 14, 2022
Erie County taxpayers — who may be asked to pay as much as $1 billion to build a new football stadium for the Buffalo Bills — now have access to critical information around the proposals, thanks to a successful lawsuit brought by UB School of Law’s Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic.
The clinic’s client, the independent news organization Investigative Post, sought to access two studies on the economic and other impacts of the proposed stadium sites. Empire State Development initially denied the clinic’s Freedom of Information Law request, arguing that disclosing the studies would impede contract negotiations.
Clinic students, supervised by Assistant Director Michael Higgins, sued in state Supreme Court, working with the Buffalo-based media law firm Finnerty Osterreicher & Abdulla as co-counsel. Three weeks later, before a court ruling, the state released a cache of documents. They include one study in its entirety, which evaluates the economic impact of the Bills and Sabres on the region, and a significant part of another, which compares the costs of siting a new stadium in downtown Buffalo, Orchard Park or Amherst, and of renovating the current stadium.
It’s a win for the clinic and for government transparency. Investigative Post reporters are studying the documents as part of their continuing coverage of the impending siting decision, one of the largest local public works projects in a generation.
“Our clinic is doing critical work on behalf of investigative journalists that few law firms do in Western New York — and we’re winning,” says Heather Abraham, clinic director and associate professor of law. “This lawsuit is just one illustration. The government cannot continue to ignore its duty to disclose documents under the Freedom of Information Law.”
Adds Higgins: “Regrettably, government agencies have learned that they can withhold records that they are obligated to release under the law because no one has the resources to sue them. Investigative Post has those resources because of our clinic and our dedicated student attorneys.”
The documents reveal that a Buffalo site is expected to produce greater economic impact, but building a new stadium in Orchard Park would cost less and pose fewer other obstacles, like scheduling and politics. Bills ownership has expressed a preference for the Orchard Park site.
The 156-page economic impact report is rich in insight about how Pegula Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Bills and the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres, calculates its economic impact. One argument, from PSE, is that Bills fans generated $49.4 million in direct spending in 2019, including spending on restaurants, groceries, retail, hotels, gas and rental cars. Experts, including the state’s own report, have concluded that the economic impact is actually much lower. The report indicates the Bills earn close to $52 million per season on ticket revenue alone.
Two student attorneys worked on the case: Kirstin Sherman ’23 and third-year student Jessica Senske ’22. For Sherman, it was a chance to test the waters of civil rights and transparency work as she looks ahead to life after law school. “It’s a really great opportunity to have access to that, especially so early on in my legal career,” she says.
And the lawsuit was particularly interesting, she notes, because the stadium discussion has received widespread attention. “It’s a very public issue,” she says. “Every week we sent each other news articles about new leaks of information and new possibilities about what these documents could say.”
Ultimately, it became apparent that the court of public opinion carried great weight. Empire State Development released the documents before the judge ruled.