The Second Circuit, in a 2–1 decision, reinstated the four-game suspension of Tom Brady based on his alleged involvement in deflating the footballs used in the 2015 American Football Conference Championship Game. In essence, the court held in National Football League Football Management Council et al v. NFL Players Association and Tom Brady (Case Nos. 15-2801 (L) & No. 15-2805 (CON), April 25, 2016) that the arbitration process was properly conducted and reversed the district court ruling that Brady had been denied a fair hearing.
After an investigation had been conducted by his outside counsel, Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner (Commissioner), suspended New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games for Brady’s alleged participation in a scheme to deflate the footballs used in the 2015 American Football Conference Championship Game. Brady requested an arbitration hearing to review his suspension, and Goodell exercised his discretion under the NFL collective bargaining act to serve as the arbitrator. Goodell denied certain discovery requested by Brady, and, after an evidentiary hearing, issued an award upholding the suspension. The district court vacated the award on the ground that Brady did not have adequate notice that he could be subject to a suspension, rather than just a monetary fine, and for lack of fundamental fairness based on Goodell’s denial of Brady’s discovery requests. On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed and reinstated the award upholding Brady’s suspension.
Standard of Review
The Second Circuit stated that its role was limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met “the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. §141 et seq.” In essence, this meant that the court was obliged to determine if the arbitrator was “even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority” and did not “ignore the plain language of the contract.”
Basis for Decision
The court noted that, under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NFL Players Association and the NFL, the Commissioner was authorized to investigate possible rule violations, impose sanctions, and preside over arbitration proceedings that challenged the sanctions that he imposed. The court stated that, although such a regime was unusual, it was the system the parties had agreed upon, and the court’s role was not to question it.
The court then went on to review the facts revealed in the investigative report, as well as subsequent facts cited by the Commissioner indicating that Brady deliberately had caused his cell phone to be destroyed even though he knew that the investigators wanted to examine it for evidence. Given all of the circumstances, the court reached the “firm conclusion” that the Commissioner acted within his authority and that there was no basis for reversal.