NEW ORLEANS – The NFL Players Association has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three players suspended by the NFL for their roles in an alleged bounty scandal, saying commissioner Roger Goodell was not an impartial arbitrator in ruling on the investigation.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the federal court’s Easter District of Louisiana, comes two days after Goodell ruled against Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith in their appeals of the suspensions.
The move comes after Vilma, the current Saints linebacker suspended for the entire 2012 season, sued Goodell for defamation, an allegation the commissioner denied. Thursday, Goodell filed a motion to dismiss the defamation lawsuit, citing dispute resolution conditions agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA.
Additionally, the dismissal says Vilma’s lawsuit “fails adequately to plead ‘actual malice’ or ‘outrageous’ conduct, required elements of the claims assertion.”
The NFL said in a statement the defamation claims are preempted by federal labor law.
“Under federal law, if resolution of a state law claim (all of Vilma’s claims are state law claims for defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress) requires interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, the claim is preempted and must be decided, pursuant to federal law, by the dispute resolution procedures prescribed by the collective bargaining agreement,” the NFL said.
Vilma’s lawyer, Peter Ginsburg, also filed a motion Thursday, calling for Judge Helen G. Berrigan to issue a temporary restraining order and an injunction halting the linebacker’s suspension immediately.
Meanwhile, the NFLPA’s lawsuit says that Goodell acted as a partial arbitrator in hearing the appeals, having already publicly connected the players to the alleged bounty system and defended the punishments.
In response, the NFL called it an “improper attempt to litigate an issue” that should be handled by the league’s CBA.
“There is no basis for asking a federal court to put its judgment in place of the procedures agreed upon with the NFLPA in collective bargaining,” the NFL said in a statement. “These procedures have been in place, and have served the game and players well, for many decades.”
The NFLPA had no comment on the filing of its lawsuit.
Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, was suspended for three games. Hargrove, with Green Bay, was given an eight-game suspension and Smith, the only current Saint in the trio involved in the NFLPA lawsuit, was handed a four-game suspension.
The NFLPA’s lawsuit doesn’t ask for an injunction; instead, it asks for abdication of the suspensions handed down by Goodell.
“The Players were subject to arbitration before an arbitrator – Commissioner Goodell – who had launched a public campaign defending the punishments he intended to arbitrate, rendering him incurably and ‘evidently biased,’ ” the NFLPA lawsuit says.
The lawsuit states that Goodell “made a calculated decision to begin making public comments defending his discipline and arguing about the importance of upholding the severe player punishments which he planned to impose.” This, in turn, made it impossible for Goodell to be considered an impartial arbitrator.
Additionally, the NFLPA believes that Goodell “usurped” system arbitrator Stephen Burbank’s jurisdiction, saying that the players union never granted the commissioner rights to hear this specific case. Instead, the NFLPA believes any alleged pay-for-performance program, if proven should be presided over by Burbank.
The NFL has said the scandal falls under conduct detrimental to the league, an area the CBA grants the commissioner permission to punish in. Two prior arbitration hearings have ruled in favor of the NFL on this matter.
The NFLPA’s lawsuit, in echoing earlier positions taken by the players, denies the players participated in a bounty program that had a goal of injuring other players, adding, “nor would plaintiff/petitioner NFLPA, the union which represents all NFL players, countenance – much less defend – any such behavior.”
In calling the process a “sham,” the lawsuit says the players and union weren’t given the proper documents or allowed witnesses or “anything resembling the fairness mandated by the CBA and governing industrial due process law.”