Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ star quarterback and a former player at the University of Michigan, will be on the sidelines more than anticipated next season because of his alleged involvement in “deflategate,” the widely-publicized incident during the 2015 AFC Championship Game in which 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots were not inflated in accordance with NFL regulations.
A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the NFL’s four-game suspension of Brady, reversing the decision of the lower court. Initially, after the NFL handed down Brady’s punishment for engaging in “conduct detrimental to the integrity and public confidence in the game of professional football,” Brady initiated arbitration under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association. However, Commissioner Roger Goodell exercised his discretion under the CBA to serve as hearing officer in Brady’s arbitration and upheld the suspension.
The Second Circuit ruled that Goodell’s decision was entitled to substantial deference. Although he was both a management representative and an “arbitrator,” the Commissioner’s right to serve as arbitrator was part of the parties’ negotiated agreement. As the Court stated, “A federal court’s review of labor arbitration awards is narrowly circumscribed and highly deferential-indeed among the most deferential in the law.” So long as Goodell’s decision drew its essence from the CBA and did not ignore its terms, it could not be overturned by judicial intervention. The Court concluded by saying: “[h]ad the parties wished to restrict the Commissioner’s authority, they could have fashioned a different agreement.”
Brady’s case illustrates the highly-deferential attitude of courts toward employment-related arbitration, for both union and non-union employees. The rules are spelled out by the parties’ agreement, and it is often nearly impossible for an employee to challenge an unfavorable arbitration award in court. This makes careful negotiation and review of any arbitration clause (whether in a union contract, individual employment contract, or employee handbook) extremely important to protect your legal rights.