National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) Region 4 Regional Director Dennis Walsh recently dismissed Section 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3) unfair labor practice charges filed by mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Leslie Smith against ZUFFA, LLC d/b/a Ultimate Fighting Championship (‘UFC”) alleging that her contract to fight was not renewed in retaliation for her union organizing efforts and participation in Section 7 protected concerted activities. Mr. Walsh’s decision to dismiss Ms. Smith’s unfair labor practice allegations allowed the NLRB to successfully avoid addressing the issue of whether UFC fighters are employees eligible for potential unionization.

Relying upon the NLRB’s established legal precedent, Mr. Walsh concluded that Ms. Smith was not the victim of unlawful discrimination in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

The Regional Director concluded that the evidence provided to him could not establish that her union or protected activity was the “motivating factor” in the UFC’s failure to renew her contract as required by Wright Line, 251 NLRB 1083, 1089 (1980).

In fact, Mr. Walsh concluded that since Ms. Smith’s contract with the UFC had expired by its terms, the parties failure to reach an understanding on a new agreement was not an adverse employment action.

Mr. Walsh formally rejected Ms. Smith contention that the UFC had failed to renew her contract because she publicly engaged in efforts to unionize MMA fighters since 2016 and he asserted that the NLRB’s proper role is not to second guess a business decision not to continue an agreement in the absence of union animus.

As a result of the Regional Director’s rejection of Ms. Smith allegations and conclusion that she had not been the victim of unlawful discrimination, he decided that it was unnecessary to offer an opinion on whether Ms. Smith was actually a statutory employee eligible to unionize or an independent contractor.

Despite the dismissal of her unfair labor practice charges, Ms. Smith intends to continue her fight challenging the decision and prove that she was not rehired because of her union activity and that all MMA fighters should be properly classified as employees and eligible to unionize. Ms. Smith has filed a formal appeal of the Regional Director’s dismissal of her charges with the NLRB’s Office of Appeals.

In her appeal, Ms. Smith has requested that Region 4 reconsider the dismissal of the unfair labor practice charges and/or conduct a further investigation based upon the facts and evidence set forth in Ms. Smith’s declaration accompanying her appeal filing.

Specifically, Ms. Smith claims that Mr. Walsh’s decision to dismiss her charge was based on “numerous factual misstatements and discrepancies”,

including that she would not fight unless the UFC paid her additional money and extended her contract for two additional fights. In addition, Ms. Smith’s declaration in support of the appeal alleges that the NLRB failed to consider that the UFC had a bias and hostility against unions based upon a former UFC commentator’s express statement to her to “avoid” talking about unionization “if I wanted to continue fighting in the UFC”.

The question of whether UFC fighters are employees eligible for unionization remains an open question for now….will Ms. Smith’s appeal force the NLRB to reach a determination on this issue. Stay tuned…we may soon have a decision.

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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.