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April 25, 2011 9:16 PM

Judge Rules in Favor of Players in Labor Dispute with NFL

Posted by Victor Li

Update, 4/25/11 at 10:50 p.m. EDT: According to ESPN.com, the NFL has filed a notice of appeal, seeking relief from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, and a motion for an expedited stay.

 

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can boast three Super Bowl wins, having beaten the St. Louis Rams, the Carolina Panthers, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Now, he's got a new victory to add to his list--winning in a dispute against the National Football League itself.

Brady is the lead plaintiff among a group of nine active NFL players, including New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning, who sued the NFL in Minnesota federal district court on March 11, alleging antitrust violations and breach of contract by the league in a long-running labor dispute. The lawsuit followed a breakdown in talks between the NFL Players Association and the league over a new collective bargaining agreement with team owners, and a subseqent vote by the NFLPA to decertify. As part of their complaint, the plaintiffs, represented by lawyers from Weil, Gotshal & Manges, requested a preliminary injunction to end the lockout. Late Monday, Minnesota federal district judge Susan Nelson granted the plaintiffs' motion. (A group of retired players and prospective rookies led by former Minnesota Viking Carl Eller also filed suit; their case was consolidated with Brady's on April 11.)

Nelson's decision effectively ends the six-week lockout, although, as The New York Times reports, the NFL is expected to request a stay while it pursues an appeal to the Eighth Circuit. Otherwise, the league would be forced to put rules in place immediately so that players would be allowed to return to work, negotiate contracts, and meet with coaches and trainers.

In an 89-page opinion, Judge Nelson found that the public interest weighed in favor of enforcing antitrust laws and promoting competition, including the fans' interest in being able to enjoy watching games. Nelson noted that, "in previous battles in this long-running dispute between the players and the league, this court has recognized that the threat of harm shown by plaintiffs here, including lost playing time, constitutes irreparable harm." She was receptive to the players' argument that the comparative brevity of their playing careers exacerbated the harm suffered from being locked out. Nelson, however, refused to consider the merits of the players' arguments concerning restrictions on free agency, ruling only that the harm to the players would outweigh harm to the league as a result of granting the injunction.

Additionally, Nelson rejected a key argument made by the league and its lawyers at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, Covington & Burling, and Faegre & Benson that the players union had not really decertified, and, as such, could not bring antitrust litigation against the league. "Where those employees effectively renounce the union as their collective bargaining agent--and accept the consequences of doing so--and elect to proceed in negotiating contracts individually, any disputes between the employees and their employers are no longer governed by federal labor law," Nelson wrote.

Weil Gotshal's James Quinn, who worked alongside attorneys from Dewey & LeBoeuf, Berens & Miller, and Briggs & Morgan, argued the case on behalf of Brady and the active players. He says he is pleased with the decision, and hardly surprised. "This was completely consistent with prior case law," Quinn says. "Every issue that was raised by the NFL has been litigated before and they have lost before."

Quinn says he is confident Judge Nelson's decision will be upheld by the Eighth Circuit, should the league's expected appeal materialize. Still, his clients are open to hammering out a deal via mediation, he says. "We indicated that we were prepared to mediate a settlement, and we are still prepared to do that," Quinn says. "The players want to get back to playing."

Michael Hausfeld of Hausfeld LLP, who argued the case on behalf of the retired and prospective players, was similarly buoyant, calling Nelson's decision "extremely well reasoned" and "well-thought out and supported." He says the decision is significant since it proves that nonunionized players can prevail in an antitrust suit against the NFL. Hausfeld also is hopeful that all sides will negotiate an agreement, noting that "the decision does give a strong indication that some positions being held by some parties might have to be modified." Working alongside Hausfeld were attorneys from Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason and Heins Mills & Olson.

Boies Schiller managing partner David Boies, who argued the case on behalf of the NFL, did not respond to a request for comment by the time of this post.

An interesting related note on this Monday: The NFL recently hired Paul Clement to handle a possible appeal, depending on the outcome of the case, according to The New York Times. We wonder how today's other Clement news--the former solicitor general abruptly resigned as a partner at King & Spalding early Monday in the fallout from the firm's move to disengage itself from defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court--will affect this NFL engagement.

 

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