NFL Faces Uphill Battle in Obtaining “Emergency Stay” from Fifth Circuit
Daniel Wallach The Sports Law Blog
The next legal front in the NFL vs. NFLPA battle over Ezekiel Elliott’s 6-game suspension is expected to open this week (perhaps as soon as Monday), when the NFL files its notice of appeal of Judge Mazzant’s preliminary injunction ruling. But that act alone will not jeopardize Elliott’s playing status for the 2017 NFL season. Federal appeals often take many months to resolve. And the Fifth Circuit (which hears appeals originating from lower federal courts in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi) is no exception. According to recent federal court management statistics, the average duration of an appeal in the Fifth Circuit is 8.8 months (measured from the date of the filing of a notice of appeal to its ultimate disposition). By that measure, it could be April or May at the earliest before there is a final decision on the NFL’s appeal. And even if the appeal were “expedited” (which either party could request on a showing of “good cause”), the appeal would likely still be pending (meaning unresolved) at the end of the 2017 NFL season. This is because even expedited appeals (like all appeals) still require a full briefing on the merits–which would entail the filing of an opening brief, an answer brief, and a reply brief (spaced out over a period of many weeks), an oral argument before a three-judge panel, and, ultimately, a written decision which could take weeks to finalize. It is unrealistic–and next to impossible–to expect all that to be accomplished by January.
Judge Mazzant’s “irreparable harm” analysis underscores the difficult task awaiting the NFL should it decide to seek an emergency stay from the Fifth Circuit. In the portion of his opinion addressing “irreparable harm,” Judge Mazzant concluded that Elliott “is likely to suffer irreparable harm if he is improperly suspended based on a fundamentally unfair arbitration proceeding.” He explained:
Elliott is faced with missing six games, which is a large portion of the NFL’s season, and potentially deprived Elliott of the ability to achieve individual successes and honors. . . . The careers of professional athletes are ‘short and precarious, providing a limited window in which players have the opportunity to play football in pursuit of individual and team achievements.’ . . . The Court joins the long line of cases that have previously held that improper suspensions of professional athletes can result in irreparable harm to the player. Nat’l Football League Players Ass’n v. Nat’l Football League, 598 F. Supp. 2d 971, 982 (D. Minn. 2008) (“Williams“) (citing Jackson, 802 F. Supp. 226, 230-31 (D. Minn. 1992); Brady v. NFL, 779 F. Supp. 2d 992, 1005 (D. Minn. 2011), rev’d on other grounds, 644 F.3d 661 (8th Cir. 2011); Prof’l Sports Ltd. v. Va. Squires Basketball Club Ltd., 373 F. Supp. 946, 949 (W.D. Tex. 1974)
By contrast, Judge Mazzant reasoned, the NFL would not suffer any irreparable harm from the issuance of a preliminary injunction. He rejected as “unpersuasive” the NFL’s argument that the “agreed-upon internal procedure” for resolving disciplinary appeals (as contained in Article 46 of the CBA) would be “eviscerated” by an injunction in this case:
While the NFLPA and NFL have an agreed-upon procedure, that procedure is intended to be one of fundamental fairness. Given the current set of facts, an injunction does not eviscerate the internal procedures of the NFL and NFLPA but merely ensures the internal procedures are being carried out in the appropriate manner. Both the NFL and the NFLPA “have an interest in ensuring that the suspensions meted out under the [Personal Conduct Policy] are not tainted by [fundamental unfairness] and wrongdoing.” Williams, 598 F. Supp. 2d at 983. Therefore, the Court finds that the NFLPA showed the balance of hardships weighs in favor of granting an injunction.
Further, while left unsaid in Judge Mazzant’s order, the reality here (and a far more important point) is that the NFL can always impose a six-game suspension on Elliott at a later date (such as next year) were it to eventually prevail on appeal in the Fifth Circuit. Indeed, Commissioner Goodell’s August 11, 2017 letter informing Elliott of his six-game suspension does not expressly provide for it to begin “on” or “by” a specific date–only that it would be six total games in duration. (“You are hereby suspended without pay for six (6) regular season games, subject to appeal”). In other words, the league will eventually get its “pound of flesh” from Elliott (assuming, of course, that it wins on appeal). By contrast, Elliott will never get back the “lost” six games if a stay were entered, the suspension reinstated and served during the appeal, and then the Fifth Circuit affirms Judge Mazzant’s order. While the powers of a federal judge are vast and all-encompassing, they are not so powerful as to enable “time travel.” No federal judge has the power to turn back time–literally. Once those games are gone, they are gone forever, and Elliott will never get them back. Based solely on the irreparable harm issue (and the related ‘balancing of harms’ inquiry), Elliott and the NFLPA should be able to successfully forestall any attempt by the NFL to obtain a stay of the preliminary injunction pending appeal.
But if the Fifth Circuit disagrees and enters a stay, it could be a true “game-changer.” The second one in a week. And it would potentially (and likely) signal the Fifth Circuit’s eventual decision on the merits of the appeal: principally, that the NFL will prevail on appeal. To be sure, if the Fifth Circuit enters a stay pending appeal, it is basically saying two things: (1) that the harm to the NFL from an injunction remaining in effect is greater than the harm to Elliott from having to serve a six-game suspension (even if he were to later win on appeal); and (2) the NFL will likely prevail on appeal (the more important take-away of the two). That’s why this week–even more so than Judge Mazzant’s ruling on Friday night–may ultimately determine Elliott’s fate for the 2017 NFL season. While it would be a surprise to me (as well as the wrong decision) if a stay were issued here, if we have learned anything from the Elliott, Brady and Peterson legal sagas it’s that–just like in a football game–there are frequent momentum shifts and that today’s inspiring victories could soon become tomorrow’s crushing defeats. While I don’t expect that to occur in the Elliott case, there is always that possibility as his case ascends the judicial ladder. And we could get an early preview as soon as this week.
— Daniel Wallach