NFL and NFLPA Go Back and Forth Over Legal Details of Vilma Case in Federal Court

Attorneys for the NFL Players Association and the NFL drove home key points in federal court concerning disputed legal details in the case of suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Ryan Jones of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s jurisdiction over the fates of four suspended current and former Saints players, the players’ exhaustion of their remedies under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, and the applicability of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, a federal labor law, to their case were the key points discussed.

Four of the five filings were made in preparation for an Aug. 10 hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan, during which the NFL will argue for its motion to dismiss the NFLPA’s and Vilma’s case to set aside Goodell’s suspensions. The NFL also offered to the court a memorandum in further support of its motion to dismiss Vilma’s defamation claim against Goodell.

Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove of the Green Bay Packers and Scott Fujita of the Cleveland Browns were suspended, and the NFL concluded that Vilma played a leading role in a pay-for-performance/bounty program with the Saints from 2009 to 2011.

In its opposition to the motion to dismiss, the NFLPA attacked the league’s argument that the players had “failed to participate in any meaningful way” in a June 18 appeals hearing headed by Goodell.

“The NFL’s lead argument — that the NFLPA failed to ‘meaningfully participate’ in the Commissioner arbitration and therefore has not exhausted its CBA remedies — is baseless as a matter of both fact and law,” NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler said in the brief. “The NFLPA initiated the Commissioner arbitration, made numerous requests for the information to which it was entitled under the CBA, and presented motions and objections concerning the Commissioner’s various failures to abide by the CBA. … In reality, the NFL challenges the manner of the NFLPA’s participation, not its lack of participation.”

The NFLPA argued that Berrigan should at a minimum vacate Goodell’s suspensions and appoint a neutral arbitrator “on account of the Commissioner’s evident partiality.” It further said that Goodell did not have the authority to review the players’ punishments that he imposed.

“This was not a ‘conduct detrimental’ case, but rather a case of non-contractual payments, subject to System Arbitrator jurisdiction,” Kessler said.

In a brief submitted in response to a July 26 hearing on Vilma’s motion for a temporary restraining order, the NFL argued that Berrigan’s jurisdiction was such that she could only at most overturn the suspensions and then turn the appeals decision back over to the commissioner.

“The CBA vests the Commissioner with exclusive authority to decide conduct detrimental proceedings because of his knowledge of and responsibility to the industry, particularly factors that affect the integrity of or public confidence in the sport,” the NFL attorneys said in the brief. “The parties bargained for his experience and personal judgment.

“And, with respect to labor arbitration, the Supreme Court has held that parties ‘should not be deprived of the arbitrator’s judgment when it was his judgment and all that it connotes that was bargained for.'”

In a separate letter, Kessler responded to Berrigan’s request that the NFLPA provide evidence that an injunction may be issued against the players’ suspensions absent of an unlawful act committed by the NFL, such as violence, threat of intimidation or physical harm. He said that the Norris-LaGuardia’s prohibition against injunctions does not apply when the relief requested is not in relation to a strike or other peaceful labor activity.

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