Judge Richard M. Berman of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has ruled in favor of Tom Brady and the NFLPA in its case against the NFL, overturning Brady's four-game suspension for his alleged role in Deflategate.
Based upon the foregoing and applicable legal authorities, the Court hereby denies the Management Council's motion to confirm the Award and grants the Players Association's motion to vacate the Award, thereby vacating the four-game suspension of Tom Brady, effective immediately.
The "foregoing" that Berman refers to are as follows:
- The investigation conducted by Ted Wells after it was alleged that the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs during the 2015 AFC title game against the Indianapolis Colts
- The Wells Report, prepared by Ted Wells in which he detailed the results of his investigation
- The letter sent by NFL vice president Troy Vincent to Tom Brady in which Vincent imposed Brady's four-game suspension
- The letter sent by Vincent to Patriots owner Robert Kraft in which Vincent fined the Patriots $1 million and ordered a forfeiture of a 2016 first-round pick and 2017 fourth-round pick
- The transcript of Brady's arbitration hearing with Roger Goodell
- Goodell's written decision on Brady's appeal
- The NFL's initial complaint seeking affirmation of Goodell's decision
- The NFLPA's initial response to the complaint
- Further written submissions of both sides
- The oral arguments each side made in front of Judge Berman over the last few weeks
In his decision, Judge Berman stated, "The Court is fully aware of the deference afforded to arbitral decisions, but, nevertheless, concludes that the Award should be vacated. The Award is premised upon several significant legal deficiencies, including (A) inadequate notice to Brady of both his potential discipline (four-game suspension) and his alleged misconduct; (B) denial of the opportunity for Brady to examine one of two lead investigators, namely NFL Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jeff Pash; and (C) denial of equal access to investigative files, including witness interview notes."
You may notice how Judge Berman's decision and reasoning did not mention, nor did it concern, Brady's alleged guilt or innocence in Deflategate. That was not at issue in this case. It was merely about the process afforded to Brady in his appeal of his four-game suspension, and whether or not it was fair. Judge Berman ruled that it was not.
This is, of course, likely not the end of the Deflategate saga. As we have written and many have stated numerous times, the NFL is likely to appeal this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
However, as noted by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the NFL is unlikely to seek an injunction that would prevent Brady from playing while the appeal is ongoing. For all intents and purposes, that means Brady is likely to be active for the entire season, unless the appeal is resolved prior to season's end and the Second Circuit judge overturns Judge Berman and rules for the NFL.
The decision is a big win for Brady, of course, as he does not have to sit the first four games of New England's season, but it may be an even bigger win for the NFLPA. The players have often argued over the last few years that the NFL, and Goodell in particular, impose discipline on a whim and without regard for previously established policies. It appears that Judge Berman agrees with that, at least in part.
As Sports Illustrated legal analyst and University of New Hampshire Sports and Entertainment Law Institute director Michael McCann noted, Judge Berman alluded to the NFL's lack of consistency in disciplining players and teams for similar violations to the one alleged committed by Brady and the Patriots. In the past, players were fined, issued warnings, or not punished at all. Brady received a far larger penalty, without notice.
Additionally, Goodell's affirmation of the suspension alleged that Brady participated in a "scheme" to tamper with footballs, while the Wells Report simply stated that it was "more probable than not" that Brady was "at least general aware" of inappopriate activities. That dissonance appeared to factor into Judge Berman's decision as well.
This order could also potentially put a stop to things like Goodell and the NFL attempting to use "conduct detrimental" as a catch-all that allows the league to impose discipline outside of what is outlined in the collective bargaining agreement.
Goodell's reliance on notice of broad CBA "conduct detrimental" policy – as opposed to specific Player Policies regarding equipment violations – to impose discipline upon Brady is legally misplaced. In both the Ray Rice case and the Adrian Peterson case, the players could, perhaps, be said to appreciate that acts of domestic violence might be deemed "conduct detrimental." And yet, in both of these cases, the players were disciplined only after findings were made under the specific domestic violence policy [New NFL Personal Conduct Policy (Aug. 2014)]. See Adrian Peterson, 2015 WL 795253, at *5-6; Ray Rice, slip op. at 16. Rightly so, because an applicable specific provision within the Player Policies is better calculated to provide notice to a player than a general concept such as "conduct detrimental." See In re Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc., 761 F.3d 303,313 (2d Cir. 2014) cert. denied sub nom. Giddens v. Barclays Capital Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2048 (2015) ("To the extent that there appears to be conflict between these provisions, the specific governs the general."); John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Carolina Power & Light Co., 717 F.2d 664, 670 n.8 (2d Cir. 1983) ("Where the parties have particularized the terms of a contract an apparently inconsistent general statement to a different effect must yield.").
In the wake of the decision, the NFLPA released a statement. It reads as follows:
The rights of Tom Brady and of all NFL players under the collective bargaining agreement were affirmed today by a Federal Judge in a court of the NFL’s choosing. We thank Judge Berman for his time, careful consideration of the issue and fair and just result.
This decision should prove, once and for all, that our Collective Bargaining Agreement does not grant this Commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading. While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of Commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power, contrary to what the NFL has repeatedly and wrongfully claimed.
We are happy for the victory of the rule of law for our players and our fans. This court’s decision to overturn the NFL Commissioner again should signal to every NFL owner that collective bargaining is better than legal losses. Collective bargaining is a much better process that will lead to far better results.
-- DeMaurice Smith
NFLPA Executive Director
Roger Goodell also released a statement reacting to the decision, which reads as follows:
We are grateful to Judge Berman for hearing this matter, but respectfully disagree with today’s decision. We will appeal today’s ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game. The commissioner’s responsibility to secure the competitive fairness of our game is a paramount principle, and the league and our 32 clubs will continue to pursue a path to that end. While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season.
For Goodell, this is a slight blow to his all-encompassing power as both judge and jury in NFL discipline, but not necessarily a crushing one. Judge Berman's decision is one that states that the procedure by which Brady's appeal was conducted was unfair (due to the previously mentioned issues of notice, denial of the opportunity to interview key witnesses and denial of access to investigative files), but it does not appear to go as far as saying that the actual appeal process (i.e. Goodell acting as arbitrator) itself is unfair.
In fact, Judge Berman purposefully stops short of ruling on Brady's additional claims (that Goodell was an evidently partial arbitrator; that Goodell sustained the suspension on the basis of factual conclusions not supported by evidence and not used as the basis for the suspension in the first place; and that Goodell's public support of the Wells Report prior to Brady's arbitration hearing locked him into supporting the Wells Report and rendered him incapable of reaching a decision in Brady's favor) because of the "inadequacy of notice and discovery afforded to Brady."
Ted Wells, who conducted the investigation into Deflategate after having previously done the NFL investigation of the Miami Dolphins and Richie Incognito bullying scandal, may be done as an NFL investigator after this. As ESPN's Adam Schefter noted, Judge Berman put quotation marks around the word "independent" when referring to the investigation five different times in his order.
Five times in today's 40-page ruling, Judge Berman put quotation marks around “independent” in reference to Ted Wells’ investigation.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 3, 2015
On the other end of the spectrum, the Patriots are massive winners here. Not only do they not have to turn to Brady's backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, for the first four games of the season; but they can feel reasonably confident that Brady will play in all 16 regular season games and, if they get there, the playoffs. For New England's first four opponents – the Steelers, Bills, Jaguars and Cowboys – this is a bit of a tough break, but it's also not like they didn't know there was a possibility that Brady might be active for those games. Had the NFLPA lost the case, it was extremely likely that Brady would have appealed to the Second Circuit and sought an injunction that allowed him to play pending the result of the appeal.
How did the Patriots themselves react to Judge Berman's decision?
That seems about right.
A full copy of Judge Berman's written decision and order is below.