October 01, 2015

Are You Ready for Some Football?

You are only human. You lead a busy professional life, and, while you have a few precious hours to watch American football on Sunday afternoons, you have no time (or patience) to slog through 20 pages of the federal district court decision that vacated the arbitration award of National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell that had (in)famously upheld the four-game suspension imposed on a certain player known to be the husband of a famous fashion model. (National Football League Management Council v.National Football League Players Association, 2015 WL 5148739 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 3, 2015)). If ever there were a task to delegate to Arbitration Commentaries, surely the parsing of this decision qualifies.

So, with full disclosure that your writer lacks independence — he wears a Buffalo Bills wrist bracelet, not a Rolex — here is all you need know to get through the coming rounds of lunches and cocktail receptions:

1. Commissioner Goodell’s independence as an arbitrator and his denial of a motion for recusal were not adjudicated. But how much does a federal judge need to swaddle the word “independent” in a cloak of quotation marks for tea leaf readers to sense the aroma that would result from adding boiling water?

2.  The Second Circuit appeal will be heard orally, at the earliest, in the week of the Super Bowl in February 2016. Giselle’s husband gets to play the full 2015 season.

3. Arbitration law has not been abused in the service of football. The evidence gathered in the league’s investigation was not reviewed for sufficiency. Even a Buffalo Bills fan would agree that Giselle’s betrothed deserves due process, a fair hearing, and adequate notice  of the prospect of employee discipline of the type that was imposed. He also deserves to be flattened by bloodthirsty linebackers.

4. This turns out to be a labor law case, and arbitral power has a particular coloration in the collective bargaining context. #12 with the golden arm is just a rank-and-file member of a union. A lunchpail guy. Discipline gets meted out under disciplinary policies bargained between the union and the league, and the policies are deemed part of the collective agreement from which an arbitral award concerning employee discipline must “draw its essence.” There was no player disciplinary policy that notified players that they were subject to suspension without pay (ouch!) for aiding and abetting, or condoning, or generally being aware of, violations of rules about “competitive integrity” which rules were themselves published only to owners not to players.  And while players are on notice they might be suspended four games for a first offense involving performance enhancing drugs, players have no reason to know that condoning the manipulation of equipment by others would be treated the same for disciplinary purposes as manipulating their own physiology for competitive advantage. No notice = no connection of the sanction to the contract = arbitrator exceeding his powers, dispensing “his (her) own brand of industrial justice.”  Easy.

5. Of course arbitrators have substantial leeway and discretion to exclude cumulative evidence. Do not become sleepless thinking arbitral discretion has been confined by this decision holding that the arbitrator denied a fair hearing by excluding evidence as cumulative. This is professional football mismanagement law, a special niche. NFL commissioners who decline to recuse themselves from serving as arbitrators in arbitrations about discipline they have imposed, based on investigations jointly conducted by outside counsel and the NFL’s General Counsel, had better provide very specific and well-reasoned justifications for denying as “cumulative” the aggrieved player’s request to cross-examine the General Counsel. Judges, like referees, recognize illegal formations.

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So cheer. For arbitration law. For sound judicial discretion. And for all opponents of the New England Patriots, always.

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