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National Football League Management Council v. National Football League Players Association

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

April 25, 2016

National Football League Management Council, Plaintiff-Counter-Defendant-Appellant,
v.
National Football League Players Association, on its own behalf and on behalf of Tom Brady, Defendant-Counter-Claimant-Appellee, and National Football League, Defendant-Appellant, and Tom Brady, Counter-Claimant-Appellee

Argued: March 3, 2016

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Nos. 15-5916, 15-1982 (RMB) - Richard M. Berman, Judge. [*]

Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Richard M. Berman, Judge). Following an investigation, the National Football League imposed a four-game suspension on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The suspension was based on a finding that he participated in a scheme to deflate footballs used during the 2015 American Football Conference Championship Game to a pressure below the permissible range. Brady requested arbitration and League Commissioner Roger Goodell, serving as arbitrator, entered an award confirming the discipline. The parties sought judicial review and the district court vacated the award based upon its finding of fundamental unfairness and lack of notice. The League has appealed.

We hold that the Commissioner properly exercised his broad discretion under the collective bargaining agreement and that his procedural rulings were properly grounded in that agreement and did not deprive Brady of fundamental fairness. Accordingly, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court and REMAND with instructions to confirm the award.

PAUL D. CLEMENT (Erin E. Murphy, Michael H. McGinley, on the brief), Bancroft PLLC, Washington, D.C.; Daniel L. Nash, Pratik A. Shah,

Stacey R. Eisenstein, Gregory W. Knopp & James E. Tysse, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Washington, D.C., on the brief, for Plaintiff-Counter-Defendant-Appellant and Defendant-Appellant.

Jeffrey L. Kessler (David L. Greenspan, on the brief), Winston & Strawn LLP, New York, NY; Steffen N. Johnson, Winston & Strawn LLP, Washington, D.C., on the brief, Andrew S. Tulumello, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Washington, D.C., on the brief, for Defendant-Counter-Claimant-Appellee and Counter-Claimant-Appellee.

Before: Katzmann, Chief Judge, Parker and Chin, Circuit Judges.

Barrington D. Parker, Circuit Judge

This case involves an arbitration arising from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's involvement in a scheme to deflate footballs used during the 2015 American Football Conference Championship Game to a pressure below the permissible range. Following an investigation, the NFL suspended Brady for four games. Brady requested arbitration and League Commissioner Roger Goodell, serving as arbitrator, entered an award confirming the discipline. The parties sought judicial review and the district court vacated the award, reasoning that Brady lacked notice that his conduct was prohibited and punishable by suspension, and that the manner in which the proceedings were conducted deprived him of fundamental fairness. The League has appealed and we now reverse.

The basic principle driving both our analysis and our conclusion is well established: a federal court's review of labor arbitration awards is narrowly circumscribed and highly deferential-indeed, among the most deferential in the law. Our role is not to determine for ourselves whether Brady participated in a scheme to deflate footballs or whether the suspension imposed by the Commissioner should have been for three games or five games or none at all. Nor is it our role to second-guess the arbitrator's procedural rulings. Our obligation is 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. (the "LMRA"). We must simply ensure that 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." United Paperworks Int'l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38 (1987). These standards do not require perfection in arbitration awards. Rather, they dictate that even if an arbitrator makes mistakes of fact or law, we may not disturb an award so long as he acted within the bounds of his bargained-for authority.

Here, that authority was especially broad. The Commissioner was authorized to impose discipline for, among other things, "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence, in the game of professional football." In their collective bargaining agreement, the players and the League mutually decided many years ago that the Commissioner should investigate possible rule violations, should impose appropriate sanctions, and may preside at arbitrations challenging his discipline. Although this tripartite regime may appear somewhat unorthodox, it is the regime bargained for and agreed upon by the parties, which we can only presume they determined was mutually satisfactory.

Given this substantial deference, we conclude that this case is not an exceptional one that warrants vacatur. Our review of the record yields the firm conclusion that the Commissioner properly exercised his broad discretion to resolve an intramural controversy between the League and a player. Accordingly, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court and REMAND with instructions to confirm the award.[1]

BACKGROUND

On January 18, 2015, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts played in the American Football Conference Championship Game at the Patriots' home stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts to determine which team would advance to Super Bowl XLIX. During the second quarter, Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass thrown by Brady and took the ball to the sideline, suspecting it might be inflated below the allowed minimum pressure of 12.5 pounds per square inch. After confirming that the ball was underinflated, Colts personnel informed League officials, who decided to test all of the game balls at halftime. Eleven other Patriots balls and four Colts balls were tested using two air gauges, one of which had been used before the game to ensure that the balls were inflated within the permissible range of 12.5 to 13.5 psi. While each of the four Colts balls tested within the permissible range on at least one of the gauges, all eleven of the Patriots balls measured below 12.5 psi on both.

On January 23, the National Football League announced that it had retained Theodore V. Wells, Jr., Esq., and the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to conduct an independent investigation into whether there had been improper ball tampering before or during the game. That investigation culminated in a 139-page report released on May 6, which concluded that it was "more probable than not" that two Patriots equipment officials-Jim McNally and John Jastremski-had "participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls after the balls were examined by the referee." Joint App. at 97.[2] Specifically, the Report found that McNally had removed the game balls from the Officials Locker Room shortly before the game, in violation of standard protocol, and taken them to a single-toilet bathroom, where he locked the door and used a needle to deflate the Patriots footballs before bringing them to the playing field.

In addition to videotape evidence and witness interviews, the investigation team examined text messages exchanged between McNally and Jastremski in the months leading up to the AFC Championship Game. In the messages, the two discussed Brady's stated preference for less-inflated footballs. McNally also referred to himself as "the deflator" and quipped that he was "not going to espn . . . yet, " and Jastremski agreed to provide McNally with a "needle" in exchange for "cash, " "newkicks, " and memorabilia autographed by Brady. Joint App. at 99-102. The Report also relied on a scientific study conducted by Exponent, an engineering and scientific consulting firm, which found that the underinflation could not "be explained completely by basic scientific principles, such as the Ideal Gas Law, " particularly since the average pressure of the Patriots balls was significantly lower than that of the Colts balls. Joint App. at 104-08. Exponent further concluded that a reasonably experienced individual could deflate thirteen footballs using a needle in well under the amount of time that McNally was in the bathroom.[3]

The investigation also examined Brady's potential role in the deflation scheme. Although the evidence of his involvement was "less direct" than that of McNally's or Jastremski's, the Wells Report concluded that it was "more probable than not" that Brady had been "at least generally aware" of McNally and Jastremski's actions, and that it was "unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady's" "knowledge/' "approval, " "awareness, " and "consent." Joint App. at 112, 114. Among other things, the Report cited a text message exchange between McNally and Jastremski in which McNally complained about Brady and threatened to overinflate the game balls, and Jastremski replied that he had "[t]alked to [Tom] last night" and "[Tom] actually brought you up and said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them done." Joint App. at 112. The investigators also observed that Brady was a "constant reference point" in McNally and Jastremski's discussions about the scheme, Joint App. at 112, had publicly stated his preference for less-inflated footballs in the past, and had been "personally involved in [a] 2006 rule change that allowed visiting teams to prepare game balls in accordance with the preferences of their quarterbacks, " Joint App. at 114.

Significantly, the Report also found that, after more than six months of not communicating by phone or message, Brady and Jastremski spoke on the phone for approximately 25 minutes on January 19, the day the investigation was announced. This unusual pattern of communication continued over the next two days. Brady had also taken the "unprecedented step" on January 19 of inviting Jastremski to the quarterback room, and had sent Jastremski several text messages that day that were apparently designed to calm him. The Report added that the investigation had been impaired by Brady's refusal "to make available any documents or electronic information (including text messages and emails), " notwithstanding an offer by the investigators to allow Brady's counsel to screen the production. Joint App. at 116.

In a letter dated May 11, 2015, NFL Executive Vice President Troy Vincent, Sr., notified Brady that Goodell had authorized a four-game suspension of him pursuant to Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the League and the NFL Players Association (the "Association" or the "NFLPA") for engaging in "conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football." Joint App. at 329.[4] The disciplinary letter cited the Wells Report's conclusions regarding Brady's awareness and knowledge of the scheme, as well as his "failure to cooperate fully and candidly with the investigation, including by refusing to produce any relevant electronic evidence (emails, texts, etc.) despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information." Joint App. at 329.

Brady, through the Association, filed a timely appeal of the suspension, and the Commissioner exercised his discretion under the CBA to serve as the hearing officer. The Association sought to challenge the factual conclusions of the Wells Report, and also argued that the Commissioner had improperly delegated his authority to discipline players pursuant to the CBA. Prior to the hearing, the Association filed several motions, including a motion to recuse the Commissioner, a motion to compel NFL Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jeff Pash to testify regarding his involvement in the preparation of the Wells Report, and a motion to compel the production of Paul, Weiss's internal investigation notes.

The Commissioner denied the motions in decisions issued on June 2 and June 22, 2015. He reasoned that his recusal was not warranted because he did not "delegate [his] disciplinary authority to Mr. Vincent" and did "not have any first-hand knowledge of any of the events at issue." Special App. at 67-68. The Commissioner also declined to compel Pash's testimony, saying that Pash did not "play a substantive role in the investigation/' and that the Wells Report made clear that it was "prepared entirely by the Paul Weiss investigative team." Special App. at 63. The Commissioner offered to revisit his ruling "should the parties present evidence showing that the testimony of [Pash] ... is necessary for a full and fair hearing/' Special App. at 64, but the Association never asked him to reconsider. As to the Paul, Weiss investigation notes, the Commissioner ruled that the CBA did not require their production and, in any event, the notes played no role in his disciplinary decision.

On June 23, the Commissioner held a hearing involving nearly ten hours of sworn testimony and argument and approximately 300 exhibits. Shortly before the hearing, it was revealed that on March 6-the same day that he was to be interviewed by the Wells investigative team-Brady had "instructed his assistant to destroy the cellphone that he had been using since early November 2014, a period that included the AFC Championship Game and the initial weeks of the subsequent investigation, " despite knowing that the investigators had requested information from the phone several weeks before. Special App. at 42. Although Brady testified that he was following his ordinary practice of disposing of old cell phones in order to protect his personal privacy, he had nonetheless retained phones that he had used before and after the relevant time frame.

On July 28, the Commissioner issued a final decision affirming the four-game suspension. Based upon the newly revealed evidence regarding the destruction of the cell phone, the Commissioner found that Brady had not only failed to cooperate with the investigation, but "made a deliberate effort to ensure that investigators would never have access to information that he had been asked to produce." Special App. at 54. The Commissioner consequently drew an adverse inference that the cell phone would have contained inculpatory evidence, and concluded:

(1) Mr. Brady participated in a scheme to tamper with the game balls after they had been approved by the game officials for use in the AFC Championship Game and (2) Mr. Brady willfully obstructed the investigation by, among other things, affirmatively arranging for destruction of his cellphone knowing that it contained potentially relevant information that had been requested by the investigators.

Special App. at 54. Finally, the Commissioner analogized Brady's conduct to that of steroid users, whom he believed seek to gain a similar systematic competitive advantage, and consequently affirmed that, in his view, the four-game suspension typically imposed on first-time steroid users was equally appropriate in this context.

The League commenced an action the same day in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Berman, J..), seeking confirmation of the award under the LMRA. The Association brought an action to vacate the award in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, which was subsequently transferred to the Southern District.

On September 3, the district court issued a decision and order granting the Association's motion to vacate the award and denying the League's motion to confirm. Nat'l Football League Mgmt. Council v. Nat'l Football League Players Ass'n, 125 F.Supp.3d 449 (S.D.N.Y. 2015). The court reasoned that Brady lacked notice that he could be suspended for four games because the provisions applicable to his conduct provided that only fines could be imposed. The court also held that the award was defective because the Commissioner deprived Brady of fundamental fairness by denying the Association's motions to compel the production of Paul, Weiss's internal notes and Pash's testimony regarding his involvement with the Wells Report. The League timely appealed, and we now reverse.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review a district court's decision to confirm or vacate an arbitration award de novo on questions of law and for clear error on findings of fact. Wackenhut Corp. v. Amalgamated Local 515, 126 F.3d 29, 31 (2d Cir. 1997). Because this dispute involves the assertion of rights under a collective bargaining agreement, our analysis is governed by section 301 of the LMRA. Major League Baseball Players Ass'n v. Garvey, 532 U.S. 504, 509 (2001).

The LMRA establishes a federal policy of promoting "industrial stabilization through the collective bargaining agreement, " with particular emphasis on private arbitration of grievances. United Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574, 578 (1960). The Act embodies a "clear preference for the private resolution of labor disputes without government intervention." Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers v. Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., 143 F.3d 704, 714 (2d Cir. 1998).

Under this framework of self-government, the collective bargaining agreement is not just a contract, but "a generalized code to govern a myriad of cases which the draftsmen cannot wholly anticipate." Warrior, 363 U.S. at 578. Collective bargaining agreements are not imposed by legislatures or government agencies. Rather, they are negotiated and refined over time by the parties themselves so as to best reflect their priorities, expectations, and experience. Similarly, the arbitrators are chosen by the parties because of their expertise in the particular business and their trusted judgment to "interpret and apply [the] agreement in accordance with the 'industrial common law of the shop' and the various needs and desires of the parties." Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 53 (1974). The arbitration process is thus "part and parcel of the ongoing process of collective bargaining." Misco, 484 U.S. at 38.

Our review of an arbitration award under the LMRA is, accordingly, "very limited." Garvey, 532 U.S. at 509. We are therefore not authorized to review the arbitrator's decision on the merits despite allegations that the decision rests on factual errors or misinterprets the parties' agreement, but inquire only as to whether the arbitrator acted within the scope of his authority as defined by the collective bargaining agreement. Because it is the arbitrator's view of the facts and the meaning of the contract for which the parties bargained, courts are not permitted to substitute their own. Misco, 484 U.S. at 37-38. It is the arbitrator's construction of the contract and assessment of the facts that are dispositive, "however good, bad, or ugly." Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S.Ct. 2064, 2071 (2013). Contrary to our dissenting colleague, we do not consider whether the punishment imposed was the most appropriate, or whether we are persuaded by the arbitrator's reasoning. In short, it is not our task to decide how we would have conducted the arbitration proceedings, or how we would have resolved the dispute.

Instead, our task is simply to ensure that 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." Misco, 484 U.S. at 38. Even failure to "follow arbitral precedent" is no "reason to vacate an award." Wackenhut, 126 F.3d at 32. As long as the award "'draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement' and is not merely the arbitrator's 'own brand of industrial justice, '" it must be confirmed. Niagara Mohawk, 143 F.3d at 714 (quoting United Steelworkers v. Enter. Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593, 597 (I960)); see also Garvey, 532 U.S. at 509; 187 Concourse Assocs. v. Fishman, 399 F.3d 524, 527 (2d Cir. 2005).[5] If the arbitrator acts within the scope of this authority, the remedy for a dissatisfied party "is not judicial intervention/' but "for the parties to draft their agreement to reflect the scope of power they would like their arbitrator to exercise." United Bhd. of Carpenters v. Tap-pan Zee Constr., LLC, 804 F.3d 270, 275 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting T.Co Metals, LLC v. Dempsey Pipe & Supply, Inc., 592 F.3d 329, 345 (2d Cir. 2010)). Against this legal backdrop, we turn to the decision below and the arguments advanced on appeal.

DISCUSSION

Article 46 of the CBA empowers the Commissioner to take disciplinary action against a player whom he "reasonably judge [s]" to have engaged in "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football." Joint App. at 345, 353.[6] A disciplined player is entitled to appeal to the Commissioner and seek an arbitration hearing, and the Commissioner may appoint either himself or someone else to serve as arbitrator. Article 46 does not articulate rules of procedure for the hearing, except to provide that "the parties shall exchange copies of any exhibits upon which they intend to rely no later than three (3) calendar days prior to the hearing." Joint App. at 346.

On this appeal, the Association does not contest the factual findings of the Commissioner. Nor does the Association dispute that the Commissioner was entitled, under Article 46, to determine that Brady's "participat[ion] in a scheme to tamper with game balls" was "conduct detrimental" worthy of a four-game suspension. The parties disagree, however, as ...


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