United States District Court, D. Minnesota
National Football League Players Association, on its own behalf and on behalf of Adrian Peterson, Petitioner,
National Football League and National Football League Management Council, Respondents
Jeffrey L. Kessler, Esq., David L. Greenspan, Esq. and Winston and Strawn LLP, New York, N.Y. and Barbara P. Berens, Esq. and Berens & Miller, PA, Minneapolis, MN, counsel for petitioner.
Daniel L. Nash, Esq., Marla S. Axelrod, Esq. and Aikin Gump, Washington, D.C. and Joseph G. Schmitt, Esq. and Peter D. Gray, Esq. and Nilan, Johnson, Lewis PA, Minneapolis, MN, counsel for respondents.
David S. Doty, United States District Judge.
This matter is before the court upon the petition to vacate arbitration award by petitioner National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), on its own behalf and on behalf of Adrian Peterson. Respondents are the National Football League and the National Football League Management Council (collectively, NFL). Based on a review of the file, record, and proceedings herein, and for the following reasons, the court grants the petition.
This arbitration dispute arises out of the discipline imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson following Peterson's corporal punishment of his son in May 2014.
I. The Parties' Relationship
The parties' relationship is governed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed on August 4, 2011 (CBA). NFLPA Ex. 1. Relevant here, Article 46 of the CBA authorizes the Commissioner to impose discipline on NFL players for " conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game."
See id. § 1(a). Article 46 allows a player to appeal the Commissioner's disciplinary decision to a hearing officer appointed by the Commissioner.
See id. § 2(a). The Standard NFL Player Contract, which is part of the CBA, further provides that on a finding of conduct detrimental to the league, the Commissioner " will have the right, but only after giving Player the opportunity for a hearing ... to fine Player in a reasonable amount; to suspend Player for a period certain or indefinitely; and/or to terminate this contract." Id. Ex. 1A ¶ 15. The NFL's Personal Conduct Policy (Policy), which is revised periodically, sets forth what constitutes conduct detrimental to the league and what discipline may follow.
See id. Ex. 2.
The Policy in place during the underlying incident provided that the NFL may impose discipline when the player has committed a criminal offense, including domestic violence. Id. at 1. Consistent with the Player Contract, the Policy also stated that discipline may include fines, suspension, or banishment from the league. Id. at 2. The Policy did not set forth the presumed length of suspension for particular types of conduct, but noted that the disciplinary response " will be based on the nature of the incident, the actual or threatened risk to the participant and others, any prior or additional misconduct (whether or not criminal charges were filed), and other relevant factors." Id.
On August 28, 2014, in response to a well-publicized domestic violence incident involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, the Commissioner issued an enhanced Personal Conduct Policy (New Policy), increasing the sanctions for domestic violence and sexual assault incidents. Id. Ex. 3. Specifically, the New Policy announced a " suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant." Id. at 3; see also id. Ex. 4. It is undisputed that under the previous Policy, first-time domestic violence offenders faced a likely maximum suspension of two
See id. Ex. 35, at 181:5-24, 368:5-13; Ex. 119, at 5 & n.4.
II. Peterson's Disciplinary Process
On September 11, 2014, a Montgomery County, Texas grand jury indicted Peterson on a charge of felony reckless or negligent injury of a child, as a result of the May 2014 incident involving his son. After learning of the indictment, the Vikings deactivated Peterson for the next game on September 14. On September 18, the NFLPA, on behalf of Peterson, and the NFL agreed in writing to place Peterson on the Commissioner's Exempt List with full pay " until the criminal charges ... are adjudicated." Schmitt Decl. Ex. B, at 1 (Letter Agreement). The Letter Agreement further stated that " [n]o discipline will be processed or imposed against [Peterson], by the Club or the League, until after the pending criminal charges are adjudicated." Id.
On November 4, Peterson pleaded nolo contendere to a reduced misdemeanor charge of reckless assault. NFLPA Ex. 30, at 2. The court issued a deferred adjudication order and placed Peterson on community supervision for two years, at the conclusion of which the charge may be removed from his record. See id. Two days later, the NFL acknowledged Peterson's plea and advised him that the " matter warrants review for potential disciplinary action under the Personal Conduct Policy." Id. Ex. 5, at 1. The NFL requested that Peterson provide certain information regarding the criminal case and notified him that he would have the opportunity to participate in a ...