Tom Brady will begin the 2015 NFL season as the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots for the 14th consecutive season following U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman’s grant of the National Football League Players Association’s motion to vacate NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s July 28, 2015, arbitration award imposing a four-game suspension on Brady. This forestalled the suspension before it was scheduled to take effect on September 5.
Judge Berman found the NFL failed to show it applied Article 46 of its collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA fairly and consistently.
This decision is the fourth time a legal authority has challenged the NFL’s application of Article 46, following U.S. District Judge David Doty in the Adrian Peterson case, former Federal Judge Barbara Jones in the Ray Rice arbitration, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in his opinion regarding the Saints players in Bountygate.
While judges rarely vacate arbitration awards, Judge Berman identified specific problems with the Brady arbitration hearing held by Goodell, including denial of access to key witnesses, which can be grounds to vacate an arbitration award. He found problematic the denial of NFLPA attorneys’ request to question NFL general counsel Jeffrey Pash, who edited the Wells Report before its release.
In addition, Judge Berman criticized Goodell for using the League’s collectively bargained steroid punishment policy to justify the suspension. Recognizing that the policy’s procedures are irrelevant to the allegations made against Brady, Judge Berman wrote that the steroid policy “cannot reasonably be used as a comparator for Brady’s four-game suspension for alleged ball deflation by others.”
Judge Berman also found decisions cited by the NFL to support confirming the arbitration award to be distinguishable. While Article 46 authorizes the League to use Goodell as the arbitrator for player appeals, Judge Berman concluded the “law of the shop,” requiring fairness and consistency, prohibits Goodell from rendering a decision that may have been compromised by bias.
The next phase of this litigation has already begun. The NFL recognizes that a motion seeking a stay of Judge Berman’s decision would require a showing of “irreparable harm,” and its argument would fall short on this score.
The NFL filed a Notice of Appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit within hours of Judge Berman’s decision.
Therefore, the immediate impact of Judge Berman’s decision is that Tom Brady can play in the first four games of the upcoming NFL season. Indeed, because of the Notice of Appeal, Judge Berman’s decision does not yet have precedential authority. However, the long-term effect of Judge Berman’s decision is far-reaching and considerable for the NFL, the NFLPA, and any private arbitral process governed by a collective bargaining agreement.
The NFL’s appeal faces the burden of convincing two appellate judges that Judge Berman misapplied the law.
Although each case presents unique issues and facts, appellate courts typically do not reverse district court judges on their orders to vacate or confirm arbitration awards. The NFL likely will rely on strong legal precedent discouraging federal judges from interfering with a private arbitrator’s decision. In his 40-page decision, Judge Berman reasoned that the NFL failed to provide notice to Brady that being aware of deflated footballs and obstructing an investigation were misconduct justifying a four-game suspension. The NFL will undoubtedly argue that the “lack of notice” argument is irrelevant where the collective bargaining agreement gives the Commissioner complete authority to evaluate the definition of “conduct detrimental” to the League and to issue punishments based upon that determination. This is the authority provided by the NFLPA to the Commissioner under the current collective bargaining agreement and the NFL will argue it was not required to provide such “notice.” The NFL likely will also stress that Judge Berman’s decision to vacate Brady’s suspension reflects a complete disregard of judicial precedents confirming arbitration awards.
Clearly, this matter is not about Tom Brady, deflated footballs, or even NFL’s investigation. Rather, the appeal is about the NFL seeking to protect its internal arbitral process. Indeed, 38-year-old Tom Brady may even be retired by the time the appeals are ultimately resolved and a final determination is made.
Should the Second Circuit affirms Judge Berman’s decision, it will create a stronger precedent for the NFLPA to challenge future discipline issued through the NFL’s arbitral process. The Second Circuit’s precedent also will have potential far-reaching implications on all employers who utilize a private arbitration governed by a collective bargaining agreement, especially in light of the broad authority afforded to the Commissioner in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.