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Aug. 4 — An arbitrator's decision sustaining a fine the NFL imposed on Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson after he was accused of child abuse was upheld by a federal appeals court ( NFL Players Ass'n v. Nat'l Football League , 2016 BL 252079, 8th Cir., No. 15-1438, 8/4/16 ).
“As a general rule, arbitrators’ awards can’t be appealed,” Cliff Palefsky, an attorney at McGuinn, Hillsman & Palefsky in San Francisco, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 4. “You have to prove fraud, which is very hard to do, misconduct by the arbitrator, or somehow that it exceeds the arbitrator’s jurisdiction,” said Palefsky, who also handles advocacy on mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts at the National Employment Lawyers Association.
A lower court erred by vacating the arbitrator's decision, Judge Steven M. Colloton wrote for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The arbitrator properly applied case law from prior arbitral decisions between the NFL Players Association and the league in upholding the penalty ordered by Commissioner Roger Goodell, Colloton said, reversing the lower court.
Judges James B. Loken and Diana E. Murphy joined in the opinion.
A grand jury indicted Peterson in 2014 on charges involving a “whooping” he told investigators he gave his son, Colloton said. The incident occurred before the National Football League adopted stricter guidelines for dealing with players who commit domestic violence. The new rules were in response to criticism of the league's handling of domestic violence accusations against Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice, he said.
A collective bargaining agreement granted the commissioner “considerable discretion in assessing discipline,” the arbitrator said, relying on earlier arbitration decisions involving Rice and a Miami Dolphins player. The arbitrator rejected the NFL Players Association's contention that the new policy shouldn't apply because Peterson's conduct occurred before its implementation, Colloton said.
A lower court vacated the arbitrator's decision because it provided “no valid basis” for applying harsher discipline to Peterson despite facts similar to Rice, Colloton said. It faulted the arbitrator for applying a penalty retroactively, Colloton said.
Judicial review of an arbitrator's decision is “very limited,” Colloton said. It should be set aside only when it doesn't draw “its essence from the collective bargaining agreement,” he said. Similar to common law that guides court decisions, “the industrial common law—the practices of the industry and the shop—is equally a part of the collective bargaining agreement although not expressed in it,” the court said.
The arbitrator based his decision on his interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement and “the law of the shop,” Colloton said. It was “grounded in a construction and application of the terms of the Agreement and a specific arbitral precedent,” he said. “It is therefore not subject to second-guessing by the courts.”
An attorney for the players association referred Bloomberg BNA to the union, which said in a statement that it accepts the loss despite disagreeing with the decision. “When negotiation or collective bargaining fails to resolve our differences, we will always fight and pursue every recourse for our players' rights,” the statement said.
Attorneys for the NFL referred Bloomberg BNA to the league, which didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Berens & Miller P.A. and Winston & Strawn LLP represented the players association. Akin Gump and Nilan Johnson Lewis PA represented the NFL.
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Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/NFL_Players_Association_v_National_Football_League_et_al_Docket_N.
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