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National Football League Players Association v. National Football League

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Sherman Division

September 8, 2017




         Pending before the Court is Petitioner's Emergency Motion for Temporary Restraining Order or Preliminary Injunction (Dkt. #5). The Court has a very limited role in this case. The Court is being called upon to determine, at this preliminary stage, whether Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (“Elliott”) received a fundamentally fair arbitration hearing. The question of whether there was credible evidence of domestic abuse is not before the Court. Nor are any of the underlying facts in the dispute between Elliott and Tiffany Thompson (“Thompson”). Based upon the preliminary injunction standard, the Court finds, that Elliott did not receive a fundamentally fair hearing, necessitating the Court grant the request for preliminary injunction.[1]


         This dispute centers on the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's (“Commissioner” or “Goodell” or “Commissioner Goodell”) decision to suspend Elliott for six games due to allegations of domestic violence made by Thompson. In July 2016, Columbus, Ohio law enforcement officers investigated allegations made by Thompson against Elliott for domestic violence. After the initial investigation on the scene, law enforcement officers found no probable cause for an arrest, due to “conflicting versions of what had taken place over the listed dates.” (Dkt. #5 at p. 4). The police continued to investigate the incidents until September; however, law enforcement officers decided not to criminally prosecute Elliott given the “conflicting and inconsistent information across all incidents.” (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 43 at p. 2).

         Pursuant to the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy (“PCP”), the Commissioner may discipline players even without a criminal charge, arrest, or conviction. (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 22 at p. 5). However, discipline is only warranted when “credible evidence establishes that [the player] engaged in conduct prohibited by this [PCP].” (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 22 at p. 5). Thus, following law enforcement's investigation, the NFL engaged in its own investigation of Elliott's alleged conduct. Kia Roberts (“Roberts”), Director of Investigations, and Lisa Friel (“Friel”), Senior Vice President and Special Counsel for Investigations, investigated the accusations against Elliott for an entire year. After the investigation, Roberts and Friel assembled the NFL Investigative Report (“the Elliott Report”). The Commissioner also assembled outside advisors who met on June 26, 2017, and interviewed Elliott. (Dkt. #2, Exhibit 13 at 117:10-21, 337:3-9 (Aug. 30, 2017)).

         On August 11, 2017, B. Todd Jones sent Elliott a letter informing him that Commissioner Goodell decided to impose a six-game suspension on Elliott. Jones stated that, in making his decision, the Commissioner reviewed “the record, including [the Elliott Report], the transcript of the June 26, 2017 meeting, and the material submitted on [Elliott's] behalf.” (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 53 at p. 4).

         After receiving the letter, Elliott filed his appeal pursuant to the NFL-National Football League Players Association's (“NFLPA”) Collective Bargaining Agreement (the “CBA”). The appeal went to an arbitrator charged with determining whether Commissioner Goodell's disciplinary decision was arbitrary and capricious. (Dkt. #23, Exhibit 2 at p. 7). In other words, the arbitrator decides whether Goodell's decision was made on unreasonable grounds or without any proper consideration of circumstances. (Dkt. #23, Exhibit 2 at p. 7).

         While preparing for arbitration, the NFLPA filed a motion to compel requesting the arbitrator, Harold Henderson (“Henderson”), order the NFL to provide Thompson for cross-examination, along with the NFL investigators' notes. (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 57). The arbitrator denied the request, stating “[t]he Commissioner's decision in this case was based on affidavits, statements, and interview reports, all of which are available to Mr. Elliott under the procedures of the [CBA].” (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 59). In that same motion, the NFLPA also asked Henderson to order the NFL to provide Roberts to testify. (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 57). The NFL responded to the request arguing that Henderson should deny the NFLPA's request because Roberts's testimony was cumulative and unnecessary. (Dkt. #1, Exhibit 58). Henderson granted the NFLPA's motion to compel Roberts to testify at the arbitration proceeding.

         During the arbitration, the NFLPA and Elliott discovered Roberts's conclusions that Thompson's accusations were incredible, inconsistent, and without corroborating evidence to sufficiently support any discipline against Elliott. (Dkt. #2, Exhibit 13 at 143:5-8, 172:21-24, 173:9-22, 175:4-19 (Aug. 29, 2017); Dkt. #2, Exhibit 13 at 301:23-302:4 (Aug. 30, 2017)). Further, the NFLPA and Elliott learned that Commissioner Goodell had a meeting with Friel and outside advisors, from which Roberts was excluded. Following this revelation, the NFLPA asked Henderson to compel Commissioner Goodell to testify to determine whether critical facts were concealed from Commissioner Goodell during the decision-making process; however, the arbitrator denied the request. (Dkt. #2, Exhibit 13 at 348:18-349:15 (Aug. 30, 2017)).

         On August 31, 2017, the three-day arbitration concluded. Henderson announced he would issue a decision shortly after. On September 1, 2017, the NFLPA, on behalf of Elliott, sued the NFL seeking vacatur of Henderson's impending decision based on the factual scenario presented in this case. Further, the NFLPA, on behalf of Elliott, filed this emergency motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, due to the fast-approaching NFL season (Dkt. #5). On September 5, 2017, after suit was filed, and during the Court's hearing on Petitioner's motion, Henderson affirmed Commissioner Goodell's six-game suspension of Elliott.[2]


         Under Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “[e]very order granting an injunction and every restraining order must: (a) state the reasons why it issued; (b) state its terms specifically; and describe in reasonable detail . . . the act or acts restrained or required.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 65(d). A plaintiff seeking a temporary restraining order must show: (1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) a substantial threat that plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted; (3) the threatened injury outweighs any damage that the injunction might cause the defendant; and (4) the injunction will not disserve the public interest. Nichols v. Alcatel USA, Inc., 532 F.3d 364, 372 (5th Cir. 2008).


         The NFLPA asks this Court to issue a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo until a decision on the merits of the petition for vacatur can be decided. The NFL argues that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case. The NFL further asserts that even if the Court does have jurisdiction, the elements are not met for a preliminary injunction. Before the Court can address the preliminary injunction's merits, the Court must address its subject matter jurisdiction.[3]

         I. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         The NFL argues the Court lacks jurisdiction over the case for three reasons: (1) the Court cannot vacate a hypothetical award under any statutory scheme; (2) the NFLPA does not have standing to assert a petition for vacatur before an award is issued; and (3) the claim is not ripe until Henderson issues the award. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Vacatur of Hypothetical Award

         The NFL contends that no statute provides the Court with jurisdiction to review a hypothetical award.[4] Specifically, the NFL claims that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), and the Norris-LaGuardia Act (“NLGA”) prevent the Court from having jurisdiction in this case.

         At the hearing, both parties agreed that the FAA does not confer jurisdiction to the Court, and jurisdiction derives from the LMRA. Therefore, the Court will focus on the NFL's argument concerning the LMRA. The NFL maintains that, under the LMRA, federal courts do not have jurisdiction over a violation of a collective bargaining agreement unless the employee exhausts the procedures provided for in the agreement. The NFL asserts that when the agreement provides for arbitration as a procedure, as it is here, exhaustion does not occur until the award is final and complete. The NFL contends that NFLPA did not properly exhaust its remedies because the NFLPA filed its suit before Henderson issued his final arbitration award. Therefore, the NFL argues that the Court does not have jurisdiction over the NFLPA's claim.

         For a federal court to maintain jurisdiction over the alleged breach of a collective bargaining agreement, an LMRA “claim must satisfy three requirements: (1) a claim of a violation of (2) a contract (3) between an employer and a labor organization.” Carpenters Local Union 1846 of United Bhd. of Carpenters and Joiners of Am., AFL-CIO v. Pratt-Farnsworth, Inc., 690 F.2d 489, 500 (5th Cir. 1982). As long as these three requirements are met an individual can sue for breach of the collective bargaining agreement. DelCostello v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 462 U.S. 151, 163 (1983) (citing Smith v. Evening News Ass'n, 371 U.S. 195 (1962)). Here, the NFLPA alleges a violation of a contract, the CBA. The CBA was entered into by the NFLPA, a labor organization, and the NFL, an employer.

         The NFL is correct that an individual is generally required to exhaust, or at least attempt to exhaust, any remedies provided for in the collective bargaining agreement before filing suit in a federal court. However, the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit have recognized exceptions to this exhaustion requirement. Id. (first citing Rep. Steel Corp. v. Maddox, 379 U.S. 650 (1965); then citing Clayton v. Auto. Workers, 451 U.S. 679 (1981)); Glover v. St. Louis-San Francisco Ry. Co., 393 U.S. 324, 328 (1969); Bache v. AT&T, 840 F.2d 283, 288 (5th Cir. 1988). The Fifth Circuit identified that exhaustion is not required if:

(1) the union wrongfully refuses to process the employee's grievances, thus, violating its duty of fair representation; (2) the employer's conduct amounts to a repudiation of the remedial procedures specified in the contract; or (3) exhaustion of contractual remedies would be futile because the aggrieved employee would have to submit his claim to a group “which is in large part chosen by the (employer and union) against whom (his) real complaint is made.”

Rabalais v. Dresser Indus., Inc., 566 F.2d 518, 519 (5th Cir. 1978) (quoting Glover, 393 U.S. at 330) (citing Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171 (1967); Boone v. Armstrong Cork Co., 384 F.2d 285 (5th Cir. 1967)); accord Wardlow v. Ark. Best Corp., 261 F.3d 138, 141-42 (5th Cir. 1959); McNealyv. Becnel, No. 14-2181, 2017 WL 2313143, at *8 (E.D. La. May 26, 2017). The Court focuses on the second exception to the exhaustion requirement: “when the employer's conduct amounts to a repudiation of the remedial procedures specified in the contract.” Rabalais, 566 F.2d at 519 (5th Cir. 1978) (quoting Glover, 393 U.S. at 330). A repudiation “occurs when a party's conduct ‘shows a fixed intention to abandon, renounce, and refuse to perform the ...

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