LLD: What Latest Opinion Means for Actual Football

Lounge Legal Department here, with your latest sure-fire cure for insomnia. As I’m sure some of you have read by now, Mike Florio is hyperventilating over at PFT about the latest judicial opinion in a story that basically amounts to “It could be … or maybe not.” While I hate to join in on anything Florio is up to, it is May, there is a lockout, and let’s face it, we’re all desperate for anything football right about now. So here is your free legal advice SL readers, and remember, you get what you pay for.

Bottom line up front: nothing has changed and the lockout is still on. As a recap for those who missed my riveting first installment, a trial judge stopped (or in legalese “enjoined”) the lockout and the appeals court put that decision on hold (“issued a stay”) until both sides could prepare and present their arguments. The next step in the process will be oral arguments, which are currently scheduled for June 3rd, mark your calendars legal fans!

This recent opinion is merely the full explanation of the appellate court’s earlier decision to grant a stay of the temporary injunction — and yet it’s so much more. While it isn’t a final ruling, an opinion like this gives us legal-beagles a chance to see what the court is thinking and then make predictions (with zero guarantees) as to the outcome. Here’s my prediction: the League will win this appeal and the lockout will continue.

The League is arguing that the trial court cannot issue an injunction because Congress has barred federal courts from getting involved in this kind of labor dispute. This happened a long time ago when there were lots of strikes, lockouts, and both sides would go to courts who, generally, made an even bigger mess. To make a really long and extremely boring story short, Congress eventually passed a law that says:

“No court of the United States shall have jurisdiction to issue any . . . injunction in any case involving or growing out of a labor dispute to prohibit any person . . . [from] refusing to perform any work or to remain in any relation of employment” 24 U.S.C. §104

Plain English Version:

A United State Judge cannot give an order that tells an boss or employee what to do when there is an argument about, or that began over, working.

There is obviously a bit more nuance but this is good enough for now. The reason I believe the League will win this appeal is that the law was intended to cover a lot of situations, and courts have applied it that way for a long time.

The Players argued, and the trial court agreed, that once the union was decertified this law no longer applied. The appeals court doesn’t seem to be buying this logic. The appeals court seems inclined to believe that this dispute, at the very least, began as a labor dispute, which also suggests they would be sympathetic to the League’s argument that the Players’ decertification was only strategic. That is not good news for the Players.

If this law does apply, then the trial judge did not have the authority to issue the injunction. It could also mean that this whole court battle will be put on hold and the matter would be left to the National Labor Relations Board to sort out through its own system of hearings, arbitration, and administrative rulings. If all of this happens, and you want football this year, grab a snickers and start praying for a new CBA!

The other reason I think the League ultimately wins this appeal is the opinion used very strong language. For example when discussing how the trial judge applied the law to this case the appeals court said “We have considerable doubt about this interpretation of the Act.” Oh, SNAP! Seriously, in legal land, that’s harsh. Judges, particularly federal judges, are a small community and they (usually) take great care not to rip each other’s opinions. This isn’t great legal analysis looking at hundreds of cases, it’s just something about the opinion that stuck out to me as someone in the business.

There are lots of other issues discussed in this opinion. The appeals court also seems skeptical that the Players would clearly suffer more “irreparable harm” (damages that can’t be fixed with money — such as losing out on a season for a player or the crazy roster disruptions that could happen to teams) or that public policy favors one side over the other.

Ultimately, the applicability of the labor statute will probably be the crucial issue for the court. I should say, however, that this was a three judge panel and one judge disagreed. His opinion (called a dissent) was similar to the analysis of the trial judge. Some interesting, new points were made in the dissent, but I do not believe it will be enough change the outcome (a majority vote wins).

So in closing, the lockout is on and will probably remain so until an agreement is reached. Meanwhile, both sides are racking up some serious legal fees preparing for the oral argument. Proof that when billionaires fight with millionaires, the only winners are the lawyers!

Jeremy Clark is an attorney working in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. You can email him here.

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  • Randy Steele

     Excellent analysis. Thanks.

  • Dean Keaton

    Thanks. I love that Florio was so much in support of the players while they had the leverage, now he has flipped to the owners side and started ripping De Smith.

    I say just blame Upshaw & Tagliabue for allowing one side all of the leverage in 2006. Now the owners are pissed that they took a deal they don’t like, and the players feel entitled to the gains they achieved in that deal. Someone’s going to go home unhappy after this is all said and done, and let’s hope it’s both parties equally. I am probably more supportive of the owners through this whole mess, but I sincerely hope they don’t use their newly gained leverage to push the players into a crappy deal just because their egos are hurting from the drubbing they took in 2006.

    • GlennW

      I don’t know why you’d blame Upshaw for this situation– his performance on the last CBA could best be described as “doing his job”.  Especially as he’s no longer around to compromise (something Upshaw had a reputation for over his tenure, to the point of criticism) by giving something back from a deal he might have known was overly favorable to the players in the long run.  In any case, I seriously doubt that DeMaurice Smith is under any false illusions about the economic realities of the last CBA, all saber-rattling and PR cries to “open the books” aside.

      I do tend to agree that the players need to give something back (if the mighty MLBPA can do so after the pendulum swung a bit too far in its direction, the NFLPA likewise can swallow some pride).  Instead they chose their only shortterm alternative to making a change to the status quo– litigation.  It seems to be fashionable to root for the players in court, but I’m hoping that the courts continue to decline to intervene in this matter with an injunction against the lockout, and the players are forced back to the table.  Where (as you say), hopefully the owners aren’t bound and determined to take scalps.  Again, no decisive early legal victories by either side (a final antitrust ruling against the owners will take years) might leave both parties with no alternative other than real compromise.

      So stay out of this (for now), federal courts,  If either side is hellbent on destruction of the other, let them go at it.  I’m not so dependent on NFL football that I need to have American legal principles compromised in order to force play to resume under duress of court order.

  • Anonymous

     ”I’m not so dependent on NFL football that I need to have American legal principles compromised in order to force play to resume under duress of court order.”

     – Glen, exactly right.  The trial judge in this case seems to have pre-determined the outcome she desired and made the law and facts support that decision….never a good legal philosophy.  This is why, I suspect, the Appellate Judges used that harsh language.