“Deflategate” is an Employment Case

Since Superbowl XLIX, the nation’s football fans’ attention has focused on “Deflategate,” or accusations that the New England Patriot’s footballs were intentionally deflated to gain an advantage in the AFC Championship game. The story is intriguing to many because it involves one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks, Tom Brady, who was suspended by the NFL for his alleged involvement in the scandal. From a legal perspective, however, Deflategate is an employment dispute, and one with important lessons.

To recap, during the 2015 AFC championship game, the Colts reported to the League their belief that the Patriot’s footballs were underinflated. Officials confirmed that 11 Patriots balls were underinflated.  Soon after the game, the NFL hired investigators to look further into the matter.  After investigation, the investigators reported that it was “more probable than not” that Patriot’s equipment officials were involved in deflating the balls and that Quarterback Tom Brady was “at least generally aware” of the conduct.  Months later, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell notified Brady that he was suspended for four games for violating the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s provision that prohibits players from engaging in conduct detrimental to the integrity of the game.

Here is where employment law comes in.  The NFL’s players are union members and, like any other union workplace, the player’s union negotiated terms and conditions of the players’ employment.  Brady’s suspension and the manner in which it would be handled are all the result of the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) negotiated by the players’ union with the NFL.  The CBA allowed Brady to appeal the suspension, which he did.  The next step was that Commissioner Goodell presided over a hearing to hear the appeal.  After 10 hours of testimony and 300 exhibits, the Commissioner decided to uphold the suspension.  In conducting the hearing and rendering the decision, Goodell made several other decisions, including to appoint himself the hearing officer, to refuse to compel the testimony of one of the investigators, and to draw adverse inferences from the fact that Brady’s cell phone was destroyed.

Brady, via the union, then appealed the decision in Federal Court (the NFL also filed an action in Court to confirm the award).  Southern District of New York Judge Richard M. Berman granted the appeal, holding that Brady was deprived of fundamental fairness and that the lacked notice that he could be suspended four games.  The NFL appealed.

On April 25, 2016, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on the NFL’s appeal. The Court reviewed the standards of the Labor Management Relations Act, the federal statute which governs disputes over union contracts.  The Court noted that the statute’s policy favors “private resolution of labor disputes” and that the government should not intervene in such private disputes, particularly where the parties have agreed to privately arbitrate their disputes.  Because of these principles, the Court’s role in reviewing arbitration decisions is very limited.  Applying these rules of law, the Court ruled in a 2-1 decision, that the suspension was properly imposed and the District Court improperly vacated the decision.

The details of the decision are available here, but the details are largely specific to the NFL case. The important takeaways are the Second Circuit’s deference to the arbitrator’s decision.  One need look no further than the second paragraph of the decision where the Court notes, “we may not disturb an award so long as [the arbitrator] acted within the bounds of his bargained-for authority.”  In other words, in reviewing arbitration awards arising from labor disputes, Courts cannot second guess the arbitrator’s decision, but must instead look only at whether the arbitrator acted within his powers.  This means that parties seeking judicial review of labor arbitration awards face a steep hurdle in having the award overturned and should be prepared to show how the arbitrator exceeded his power.

The employment lawyers at Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC are experienced in arbitration and appeals of arbitrator and agency decisions.  If you have questions about “Deflategate”, arbitrations, labor disputes, or appeals, contact our employment lawyers at 631-352-0050 or visit our website at https://www.linycemploymentlaw.com.

* The foregoing is taken largely from the Court decision, National Football League Management Council et al. v. National Football Leauge Players Association, No. 15-2801 (2d Cir. 2016).

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