Tom Brady is famous for his wins, especially in the final minutes of a professional football game. Most recently, though, the New England Patriots’ star quarterback achieved an amazing last-minute victory in a brand new venue, a federal courtroom.
Fans of the team are celebrating a legal determination, which is likely to result in Brady being able to suit up for the entire upcoming NFL season.
Judge Richard M. Berman of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has ruled in favor of Brady and the players association, which had sought to have the court overturn his four-game suspension, a punishment that had been meted out for the quarterback’s alleged role in “deflategate.”
The court did not adjudicate the question of Brady’s alleged guilt or innocence. Rather, the overriding concern expressed in the judge's ruling was whether or not the renowned sports figure had received satisfactory due process.
The legal issue in front of the court revolved around the collective bargaining agreement that existed between the league and players association and the manner in which the arbitration language contained in the agreement had been interpreted.
An arbitration provision allows parties to an agreement to commit to the process of resolving a related dispute through use of a private arbitrator as opposed to the court system. This approach is generally taken to assist in streamlining the dispute resolution procedure. Expectations of the parties involved typically correspond with the notion that an arbitrator's decision will be final.
However, due process is still part and parcel of a judicial review as it relates to a contractual arbitration.
Due process of law refers to the idea that a legal proceeding is to be conducted in an inherently fair manner. It also embodies the notion that an individual is to be given notice of a proceeding, as well as an opportunity to be heard and a chance to respond to charges, prior to any penalties being assessed.
Although the guarantees of due process found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution do not generally apply to private arbitration, other laws confer authority upon courts to evaluate due process rights in reviewing arbitration decisions.
With regard to Brady's case, Judge Berman acknowledged, “The court is fully aware of the deference afforded to arbitrary decisions,” but further concluded that “the award [the four-game suspension] should be vacated.”
The judge went on to cite “several significant legal deficiencies” in the arbitration process, the first being that Brady had been given inadequate notice of the quarterback's potential discipline for the alleged misconduct; secondly, that Brady had been denied an opportunity to confront and cross-examine a key witness, who is one of the lead investigators, NFL Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jeff Pash; and thirdly, that Brady had also been denied access to investigative files that included witness interview notes.
These are classic due process arguments. The rules contained in the agreement, which resulted in the charges against Brady and the subsequent penalty that was imposed, initially had to be clear enough that the football player would know, prior to an arbitration, on what basis he could incur a punishment.
Additionally, Brady's ability to refute charges that had been leveled against him would have been compromised if he were unable to confront witnesses or have access to the investigative notes.
The league suspended Brady for participating in a “scheme” to modify footballs. However, the investigative report, the Wells Report, stated that it was “more probable than not” that Brady was “at least generally aware” of improper activities.
The lack of consistency between these two charges added to the impression of the court that there was a lack of clarity in the arbitration rules.
As to the contention that Brady did not receive adequate notice that he could be suspended for four games for his “general awareness,” the league responded that the collective bargaining agreement set forth the option of giving a player a four-game suspension for steroid use, which, according to the league was “the closest parallel.”
This lent credence to Brady's argument that there was a lack of due process in that the league was, in his case, applying the steroid policy, with its specifically negotiated provision and its own procedural safeguards, to a non-steroid set of circumstances.
The steroid related provision did not, in fact, place Brady on notice that he could be penalized as if he had used steroids, if the league determined he had a “general awareness” that others were acting improperly.
As the judge emphasized, a rule must “clearly and unambiguously establish the scope of prohibited conduct, as well as the consequences of violations, in order to be enforceable.”
The league's fall back argument was that Brady had violated the NFL's general policy, which is contained in the collective bargaining agreement and prohibits players from engaging in conduct “detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.”
However, the court determined that the general “detrimental conduct” clause does not grant to the league such broad discretion.
Also a factor in the court's final calculus was the league's lack of consistency in disciplining players. Players other than Brady had been given warnings or fines, or had not punished at all, for substantial allegations of misconduct.
The Brady litigation is likely to continue, with the league appealing the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Reportedly, though, it is unlikely that the league will ask for an injunction to stop Brady from playing during the period in which the appeal is still pending.
All of this means that the Patriots’ star quarterback will probably be on the field for the full 2015 season, pleasing both fans of the game of football as well as fans of due process.
James Hirsen, J.D., M.A., in media psychology, is a New York Times best-selling author, media analyst, and law professor. Visit Newsmax TV Hollywood. Read more reports from James Hirsen — Click Here Now.
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