Friday, March 13, 2015

Adrian Peterson: A Rare Talent on the Field and Now One of the Rare Parties To Overturn a Labor Arbitrator’s Decision in Court

March 2015
By: James B. Sherman, Esq.

Federal labor laws reflect a strong preference for the private settlement of labor disputes through arbitration.  For this reason, arbitration awards are very rarely overturned on appeal by courts.  However, in very limited circumstances, such as where an arbitrator exceeds his or her authority or an award “fails to draw its essence from the collective bargaining agreement,” courts occasionally have been willing to intervene.  But while many parties unhappy with an arbitrator’s decision make these arguments in court, very few actually succeed.  Minnesota Viking superstar running back Adrian Peterson recently became one of the rare exceptions when he succeeded in overturning an arbitrator’s award that had upheld his indefinite suspension from playing. 

The Peterson case has received national attention since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him indefinitely following accusations that Peterson disciplined his son with a switch.  Peterson pled no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault over the incident.  This happened to follow closely after Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was captured on video punching his then fiancĂ©e in an elevator, appearing to knock her unconscious.  Rice received relatively minor discipline until the video was leaked to the press, after which the entire incident became a scandalous nightmare for the NFL and Commissioner Goodell.  In response and to save face if not his job, the Commissioner revised the NFL’s personal conduct policy to crack down more harshly on incidents of this kind.  However, when the NFL then applied its new policy retroactively to suspend Rice and then Peterson, the NFL Players Association challenged their discipline through arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement.

An arbitrator ruled in favor of Rice but a different arbitrator upheld Peterson’s suspension, costing him nearly the entire 2014 season.  Peterson challenged the decision in federal court in Minnesota, and on February 26, 2015, Judge David Doty ruled that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority and ignored the “law of the shop.”  Specifically, Judge Doty noted that the union and NFL had asked the arbitrator simply to decide whether the new personal conduct rule could be applied retroactively to Peterson, but the arbitrator’s ruling went well beyond this limited issue.  Moreover, punishment was much harsher than the way the NFL had treated similar situations in the past (the so-called “law of the shop”).

Although disciplining multi-millionaire NFL superstars may seem entirely unrelated to anything most employers experience in their workplaces, there are lessons to be taken from the NFL’s attempt to eliminate incidents involving its players that can tarnish its image.  The most obvious lesson is that applying new disciplinary rules retroactively – no matter how well intended the motive - can lead to challenges and problems down the road.  From the standpoint of anyone dissatisfied with an arbitrator’s ruling (which can be an employer as often as an employee or union), the court’s ruling shows that they can be overturned in certain limited circumstances. Adrian Peterson may have won his court appeal, but his admitted conduct cost him a great deal.