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National Football League Players Association v. National Football League

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

September 18, 2017

NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, on its own behalf and on behalf of EZEKIEL ELLIOTT
v.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE MANAGEMENT COUNCIL

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          AMOS L. MAZZANT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On September 11, 2017, the National Football League and National Football League Management Council (collectively “NFL”) filed an “Emergency Motion to Stay Injunction Pending Appeal” (“Emergency Motion”) (Dkt. #30). The briefing for the motion was complete at 6:05 p.m. CST on September 13, 2017. At the conclusion of its reply brief, the NFL advised the Court that if the Court was “unable to issue a decision by the end of the day tomorrow [September 14, 2017], Respondents intend to seek a stay of the PI Order from the Fifth Circuit on the morning of Friday, September 15, 2017, as the Rules contemplate.” (Dkt. # 30 at p. 5). Because the Court was presiding over a patent trial, the Court was unable to reach the NFL's Emergency Motion within the NFL's requested time constraints which, the Court notes, was less than twenty-four hours after the briefing on the Emergency Motion was complete.

         Because the Court did not issue an order on the NFL's Emergency Motion within the NFL's requested period of time, the NFL did, in fact, file an “Emergency Motion for Stay Pending Appeal” with the Fifth Circuit on September 15, 2017. In its Emergency Motion in front of the Court, the NFL is complaining that the Court essentially issued a premature order by failing to wait for the arbitrator to issue his ruling and therefore, lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Oddly, the NFL is now seeking expedited relief from the Fifth Circuit without first waiting for the Court to rule on the identical issue. The irony is not lost on the Court.

         BACKGROUND

         In the action before the Court, the National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”), on behalf of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (“Elliott”), seeks to vacate arbitrator Harold Henderson's (“Henderson”) decision to affirm the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell's (“Commissioner Goodell”) six-game suspension of Elliott. The basis for the NFLPA's Petition to Vacate is that Henderson denied Elliott a fundamentally fair arbitration proceeding by denying certain evidentiary requests: (1) Henderson denied Elliott access to investigators' notes; (2) Henderson denied Elliott the ability to cross-examine Tiffany Thompson (“Thompson”); and (3) Henderson denied Elliott the ability to question Commissioner Goodell.

         The NFLPA filed its Petition to Vacate Arbitration Award prior to Henderson issuing an award (Dkt. #1). The NFLPA additionally filed an Emergency Motion for Temporary Restraining Order or Preliminary Injunction (“Motion for Preliminary Injunction”) (Dkt. #5). The NFL filed a response to the Motion for Preliminary Injunction (Dkt. #8). On September 5, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the Motion for Preliminary Injunction, and during the hearing, Henderson issued his final award. The Court allowed the parties to file supplemental briefing addressing the impact of the award. Both the NFLPA and the NFL filed a supplemental brief by 5:00 p.m. on September 6, 2017 (Dkt. #23; Dkt. #24). On September 8, 2017, the Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order granting the Motion for Preliminary Injunction (“the Preliminary Injunction Order”) (Dkt. #28).

         Following the Preliminary Injunction Order, the NFL filed a notice of appeal indicating that the NFL appealed the preliminary injunction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Dkt. #29). The NFL also filed the present Emergency Motion (Dkt. #30). The Court ordered expedited briefing (Dkt. #30). On September 13, 2017, in accordance with the Court's order on expedited briefing, the NFLPA filed a response (Dkt. #34). Additionally, on September 13, 2017, the NFL filed a reply to the Emergency Motion (Dkt. #35).

         APPLICABLE LAW

         District courts have the inherent power to stay proceedings pending before them, but this power is “incidental to the power inherent in every court to control the disposition of the cases on its docket with economy of time and effort for itself, for counsel, and for litigants.” In re M.J. Beebe, 1995 WL 337666, at *2 (5th Cir. May 15, 1995) (quoting Landis v. N. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254 (1936)). Courts determining whether to issue a stay pending appeal may consider factors such as (1) whether the movant is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) whether the movant would suffer irreparable harm absent a stay; (3) whether granting the stay would substantially harm the other parties; and (4) whether granting the stay would serve the public interest. In re First S. Sav. Ass'n, 820 F.2d 700, 704 (5th Cir. 1987). Where “there is even a fair possibility that the stay . . . will work damage to someone else, ” the party seeking a stay “must make out a clear case of hardship or inequity in being require to go forward.” Landis, 299 U.S. at 255; see Ind. State Police Pension Tr. v. Chrysler LLC, 556 U.S. 960, 961 (2009) (“‘[A] stay is not a matter of right, even if irreparable injury might result otherwise.' It is instead an exercise of judicial discretion, and the ‘party requesting a stay bears the burden of showing that the circumstances justify an exercise of that discretion.'” (citation omitted)).

         ANALYSIS

         The NFL asks the Court to enter a stay of the Preliminary Injunction Order pending the NFL's appeal because it can establish all four elements required by law. (Dkt. #30). The NFLPA contends that the Court should deny the stay because Elliott, not the NFL, will suffer irreparable harm. (Dkt. #34). Further, the NFLPA contends that the NFL cannot satisfy the remaining elements necessary to justify the Court issuing a stay (Dkt. #34).

         In order to stay an injunction, the movant must first demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits on appeal. See Planned Parenthood of Greater Tex. Surgical Health Servs. v. Abbott, 734 F.3d 406, 410 (5th Cir. 2013). The Fifth Circuit has stated that “the movant need not always show a ‘probability' of success on the merits; instead, the movant need only present a substantial case on the merits when a serious legal question is involved and show that the balance of equities weighs heavily in favor of granting the stay.” Ruiz v. Estelle, 650 F.2d 555, 565-66 (5th Cir. Unit A June 1981) (citing Providence Journal v. Fed. Bureau of Investigation, 595 F.2d 889 (1st Cir. 1979); Hous. Insulation Contractors Ass'n v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 339 F.2d 868, 870 (5th Cir. 1964)). The Fifth Circuit further explained that “if the balance of equities (i.e. consideration of the other three factors) is not heavily tilted in the movant's favor, the movant must then make a more substantial showing of likelihood of success on the merits.” Id. The Court acknowledges that there are serious legal questions involved in the case, and as such if the NFL demonstrates a substantial case on the merits, then this element is met.

         The NFL asserts that it has presented a substantial case on the merits based on the Court's resolution of the jurisdictional issue and the Court's decision on the merits of the injunction. First, the NFL argues that the Court only reached the merits of the case after “resolving a series of contested legal issues in Petitioner's favor” (Dkt. #30 at p. 2). The NFL asserts that “this Court held that Petitioner met its burden of proving that it exhausted (or was excused from exhausting) its administrative remedies-even though Petitioner had not ‘support[ed] [its] theory of exhaustion with any case law.'” (Dkt. #30 at p. 3) (alterations in original). The NFL further maintains that the NFLPA failed to raise the argument that the Court should apply an exception to the exhaustion requirement until its “fifth brief filed in this Court.”[1] (Dkt. #35 at p. 1).

         However, the NFL overlooks the NFLPA's reply to its motion for preliminary injunction, which states, “[t]he NFL's Opposition ignores the critical point that the arbitral process at issue already violates labor law and the NFL-NFLPA CBA and therefore vests jurisdiction in this Court under Section 301 of the LMRA.” (Dkt. #13 at p. 2). It also disregards the argument the NFLPA made at oral argument that “there is clearly jurisdiction the moment that a breach of the Collective Bargaining Agreement took place, which has already taken place in this hearing, and that there is no issue of jurisdiction at ...


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