A week ago, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down a decision that could have significant implications for the NFL. It was glossed over thanks to the 2015 NFL Draft last weekend, but it is intriguing to say the least. The Court ruled that "the terms of [an employee] contract designating the NFL commissioner, an employee of the team owners, as the sole arbitrator with unfettered discretion to establish the rules for arbitration are unconscionable and, therefore, unenforceable."
You can read the full opinion HERE, but I wanted to take a look at some key points from it, and what it might mean for the league moving forward.
The case involved an age discrimination lawsuit filed by Todd Hewitt, an employee of the St. Louis Rams. Hewitt's contract included a clause requiring arbitration by the commissioner in the event of a dispute over the terms of the contract. The clause referenced the constitution and bylaws of the NFL, which provide that the commissioner has "full, complete, and final jurisdiction and authority to arbitrate."
Hewitt filed an age discrimination lawsuit, and the Rams responded with a motion to compel arbitration and dismiss or stay the lower court proceedings. Hewitt opposed arbitration, arguing the provision was invalid for several reasons, and that several provisions of the arbitration agreement are unconscionable, including naming the commissioner as the arbitrator.
The Court made several rulings, but the most important for our purposes is the one stating it was unconscionable to have the NFL commissioner serve as the sole arbitrator. Section V, subsection A provides the reasoning for this:
Based on the facts of the present case, the terms in the contract designating the commissioner, an employee of the team owners, as the sole arbitrator with unfettered discretion to establish the rules for arbitration are unconscionable and, therefore, unenforceable. The constitution and bylaws provide that the "League" consists of the team owners. Under the constitution and bylaws, the league "shall select and employ" the commissioner and set his or her term of employment and compensation. The constitution and bylaws also provide unequivocally that the commissioner is employed by the league; i.e., the team owners.
In effect, then, the commissioner is required to arbitrate claims against his employers. In Vincent, this Court found unconscionable a provision in an arbitration contract between a home builder and home purchasers that designated the president of a home builders association as the sole selector of the arbitrator because it found the president of the home builders association was "an individual in a position of bias."12 194 S.W.3d at 859. Like the president of the home builders association in Vincent, the designated arbitrator, the commissioner, is an individual in a position of bias as the arbitrator.
Additionally, due to the lack of any terms in the employment contract or in any document incorporated into the contract, the contract appoints the commissioner as not only the arbitrator but as the person who controls virtually every aspect of the arbitration from establishing the rules and procedures to making the final decision. Those provisions in the arbitration agreement are unconscionable. Id.
Four judges agreed on this. One of the Judges dissented specifically from this, arguing against presumptive bias. The sixth and seventh Judges did not specifically dissent from this issue, but rather the whole notion of this being appropriate. One believes the petitioner has a remedy of appeal, while the other did not believe the writ of mandamus (an order to a subordinate in the chain) was applicable in this situation.
Where this is interesting is potential implications for the NFLPA's on-going battle over Roger Goodell's role in discipline. This has been going on almost the entire length of the current collective bargaining agreement, and shows no signs of abatement. The CBA makes it a bit more difficult to deal with such provisions, but this kind of ruling is not a good sign for the NFL and the commissioner's power. I don't expect overnight changes because of this, but it provides some ray of hope for those hoping to cut back on the commissioner's power.