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NFL Mgmt. Council v. NFL Players Ass'n - 820 F.3d 527 (2d Cir. 2016)


The appellate court's review of an arbitration award under the Labor Management Relations Act29 U.S.C.S. § 141 et seq., is very limited. The appellate court is 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 inquires 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. It is the arbitrator's construction of the contract and assessment of the facts that are dispositive, however good, bad, or ugly.


An arbitration proceeding arose from allegations that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was involved in a scheme to deflate footballs used during a 2015 conference championship game to a pressure below the permissible range. Following an independent investigation, Brady was notified that Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of defendant National Football League (“NFL”), authorized a four-game suspension of him pursuant to Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") between plaintiff NFL Players Association (“Association”) and defendant NFL Management Council (also, “NFL”). Brady requested arbitration, and Goodell, serving as arbitrator, ultimately entered an award confirming the suspension. That same day, the NFL commenced an action in New York federal district court seeking confirmation of the award under the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C.S. § 141, et seq. (“LMRA”). The Association filed a separate action in Minnesota federal district court seeking to vacate the arbitration award; that action was transferred to the New York court. 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 NFL appealed.


Did Goodell, serving as arbitrator, act beyond the scope of his authority as defined by the CBA?




The court of appeals reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the case to that court with instructions to confirm the arbitration award. The court held that Goodell properly exercised his broad discretion as arbitrator under the LMRA to resolve the intramural controversy between the NFL and Brady; Goodell’s procedural rulings were properly grounded in the CBA and did not deprive Brady of fundamental fairness. The Association’s assertion that Brady lacked notice that destruction of his personal cell phone would be an issue in the arbitration had no support in the record. Goodell's decision to exclude testimony of NFL’s general counsel fit within his broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence and raised no questions of fundamental fairness. The denial of interview notes and memoranda generated by an investigative team was not a ground for vacatur because the CBA did not require the exchange of such notes.

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