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Legal Battle Continues After Arbitrator Upholds Suspension of Dallas Cowboys Running Back

Disputing Blog by Karl Bayer, Victoria VanBuren, and Holly Hayes

The legal saga over a National Football League (“NFL”) running back’s controversial six-game suspension has continued on in various federal courts.  The background regarding the case was summarized in a prior Disputing blog post:

In the case, the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, suspended a Dallas Cowboys player, Ezekiel Elliott, after Elliott was accused of committing domestic violence against his former partner despite that Elliott was not arrested or charged with a crime by police.  Instead, Goodell relied on an independent NFL investigation when he issued the suspension.

In response to the lengthy suspension, Elliott sought an appeal before an arbitrator pursuant to the terms of the National Football League Players Association’s (“NFLPA”) Collective Bargaining Agreement.  During a three-day arbitration proceeding, the arbitrator considered Goodell’s decision to suspend Elliott using an “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review.  In addition, the arbitrator denied the NFLPA’s request that both Goodell and Elliott’s accuser be compelled to offer testimony.  Elliott’s six-game suspension was ultimately upheld by the arbitrator.

Following arbitration and before the arbitrator issued his decision, the NFLPA filed a motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction with the Eastern District of Texas.  In a 22-page decision that was highly critical of the investigation and appeals process used in Elliott’s case, the federal court held “Elliott did not receive a fundamentally fair hearing,” and granted the NFLPA’s request for a preliminary injunction.

On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, the NFL argued the Eastern District of Texas “lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), 29 U.S.C. § 185, to issue the preliminary injunction.”  An appellate court panel agreed and stated:

The NFLPA’s lawsuit on Elliott’s behalf was premature. The procedures provided for in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA were not exhausted. The parties contracted to have an arbitrator make a final decision. That decision had not yet been issued. Although the NFLPAargues there were final procedural rulings, those rulings were not necessarily indicative of the arbitrator’s final decision. At the time the NFLPA filed the complaint, it was possible the arbitrator could have issued a final decision that was favorable to Elliott. Elliott cannot show it was futile to wait for a final decision simply because he believed the arbitrator would issue an unfavorable ruling. As there was no final decision, Elliott had not yet exhausted the contracted-for remedies.

Because the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to issue the injunction, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated the lower court’s preliminary injunction and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss the action.  In response, the NFLPA filed a motion for an en banc hearing before the entire court.

Meanwhile, the NFL filed a motion to confirm the arbitrator’s decision in the Southern District of New York – the same court that upheld Tom Brady’s suspension following the so-called “Deflategate” controversy.  Last week, the New York district court reportedly granted a 14-day temporary restraining order enjoining the NFL from enforcing Elliott’s suspension pending further proceedings.  It will be interesting to see what happens next in this hotly contested case!


Beth Graham

Beth Graham received a J.D. from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 2004 and a M.A. in Information Science and Learning Technologies from the University of Missouri in 2006. She also holds a B.S. in Public Administration from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She is licensed to practice law… MORE >

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