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NFL PLAYERS ASSN. v. PRO-FOOTBALL

May 11, 1994

NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, Plaintiff,
v.
PRO-FOOTBALL, INC. d/b/a WASHINGTON REDSKINS, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS F. HOGAN

 The history of professional football is dotted with moments where last minute heroics produced stunning victories. For example, on December 28, 1958, with the score tied 17-17 in overtime, Johnny Unitas handed the ball to Alan ("the Horse") Ameche, who burst into the endzone to give the Baltimore Colts a championship victory over the New York Giants. This case presents the Court with the opportunity to address another type of last minute activity: a last minute legal battle that at one point threatened to stop the last game of the Washington Redskins' 1993 football season.

 The parties in this suit seek to resolve a dispute arising out of the labor agreement governing the players and teams in the National Football League ("NFL"). The parties normally rely upon an arbitrator to act as a referee when disputes arise, but in this particular case, the Court is forced to don a black and white striped shirt and interpret the rules by which the parties have agreed to be bound. Having carefully considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the oral arguments of counsel, and the entire record in this case, the Court will grant the defendants' motions for summary judgment and dismiss this case.

 BACKGROUND

 The facts in this case are undisputed. The plaintiff, the National Football League Players Association ("NFLPA"), is the union representing NFL players. The defendants are Pro-Football, Inc. d/b/a the Washington Redskins ("the Redskins") and the NFL Management Council ("Management Council"). The NFLPA and the NFL Management Council signed a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") on May 6, 1993, that governs the employment of professional football players. In executing the CBA, the NFLPA acted as the sole and exclusive representative of the individuals who play football for NFL teams and the Management Council acted as the sole and exclusive representative of the NFL teams that employ these football players. CBA, Preamble.

 Article V of the agreement contains a standard agency shop provision that requires NFL players to pay union dues or an equivalent service fee within 30 days of employment. *fn1" The agreement states that this provision is applicable "wherever and whenever legal." CBA, Art. V, § 1. If, after written notification to the NFL Management Council that a player has not paid the proper fees, the matter is no resolved within seven days, the agreement indicates that the player should be suspended without pay. *fn2" Additionally, Article V states that "any dispute over compliance with, or the interpretation, application or administration of this Article" will be resolved through arbitration. CBA, Art. V, § 6. *fn3" The resulting arbitration decision "will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute, and will be binding on the player(s) and Club(s) involved and the parties to this agreement. " Id.

 On December 17, 1993, the NFLPA sent a written notice to the Management Council which identified the players who had not paid dues or fees to the NFLPA for 1993. The Management Council then informed the Redskins that the team should suspend any players who failed to pay their fees or dues by December 24, 1993. On December 24, 1993, the NFLPA advised the Redskins that 37 Redskins players should be suspended for failing to pay the required fees. The Redskins refused to suspend the delinquent players, asserting that Virginia's right-to-work law prohibited the club from suspending the players. *fn4"

 Based on the refusal of the Redskins to suspend the players, on December 24, 1993, the NFLPA then filed a grievance pursuant to the CBA and obtained an expedited hearing before an arbitrator, Herbert Fishgold. The arbitrator conducted a six-hour hearing on December 28, 1993. See Plaintiff's Exhibit G ("Transcript of Arbitration"). During the hearing, the Redskins argued that the club is a Virginia employer, subject to Virginia's right-to-work laws. Since the club's players spend the vast majority of their working hours at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Virginia, the Redskins took the position that it would be illegal to enforce the agency shop provision against the Redskins and the team's players. The NFLPA argued that the players' predominant job situs was in the District of Columbia and that Virginia's right-to-work law did not apply to the Redskins. Specifically, the NFLPA pointed out that the Redskins play two preseason and eight regular season games at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium ("RFK Stadium") in the District of Columbia, the club's revenue is predominantly derived from playing football games, and players' salaries are related to the number of games in which they remain on the club's roster.

 On December 29, 1993, the arbitrator issued his finding. The arbitrator ordered the Redskins to comply with the agreement and to suspend players who failed to pay their dues or fees. Interpreting the Supreme Court's decision in Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, International Union v. Mobil Oil Corp., 426 U.S. 407, 48 L. Ed. 2d 736, 96 S. Ct. 2140 (1976), the arbitrator found that the District of Columbia, not Virginia, was the players' predominant job situs because the Redskins play more games there (at RFK stadium) than anywhere else. Plaintiff's Exhibit H at 6-7. Although the players spend the majority of their time practicing in Virginia, the arbitrator found that the team's games are the "raison d'etre" of the players' employment and produce the team's revenues. *fn5" Id. Therefore, the arbitrator issued an award that required the Redskins to suspend any players who failed to pay the proper fees. Plaintiff's Exhibit I.

 Following Judge Horne's action, the NFLPA filed this suit seeking injunctive relief and a TRO ordering the defendants to comply with the arbitration award. The NFLPA sought to have the players suspended prior to the Redskins' December 31 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Judge Joyce Hens Green denied the motion on December 30, 1993. National Football League Players Ass'n v. Pro-Football, Inc., 849 F. Supp. 1, 1993 WL 548828 (D.D.C. 1993). Judge Green found that the NFLPA was unable to demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. Additionally, Judge Green expressed concern that granting the TRO could cause the Redskins to forfeit the December 31 game, the only NFL game scheduled to be broadcast on New Year's Eve. Such a result would harm ticket holders, fans planning to watch or listen to the game in the mass media, and the teams that were still competing for a berth in the NFL playoffs. Id. at *2.

 Although the 1993 NFL season is over, the parties have pursued this matter. The Redskins have filed a counterclaim against the NFLPA seeking a declaratory judgment finding the arbitrator's award to be unlawful and unenforceable. The NFLPA filed a motion for summary judgment and the defendants have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The Court heard oral arguments on these motions on April 21, 1994.

 DISCUSSION

 In this case, the Court needs to determine whether the Redskins can make an end run around the arbitrator's decision. In order to make such a determination, the Court needs to address two issues: (1) the standard of review to apply; and (2) whether the arbitrator correctly interpreted Mobil Oil when he found the job situs of Redskins players to be the District of Columbia. The Court finds that it is required to act much like the mysterious individual in the NFL's instant replay booth and review the prior decision de novo. After conducting a slow-motion de novo review of the arbitrator's decision, the Court finds that the arbitrator incorrectly interpreted Mobil Oil. Accordingly, the Court finds that the defendants are entitled to summary judgment.

 I. The Appropriate Standard for Reviewing the Arbitrator's Decision

 Under § 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, federal courts have jurisdiction to enforce collective bargaining agreements. Local Union 1395, Int'l Brotherhood v. N.L.R.B., 254 U.S. App. D.C. 360, 797 F.2d 1027, 1030 (D.C. Cir. 1986). The parties do not dispute that this Court has jurisdiction to review and enforce the arbitrator's decision. However, the parties dispute the level of deference that the Court should give to the arbitrator's decision.

 The defendants start out in the position of a football team that is behind on the scoreboard and buried in its own territory with less than a minute to play. They face a difficult challenge because ordinarily, "a federal court may not overrule an arbitrator's decision simply because the court believes its own interpretation of the contract would be a better one." W.R. Grace & Co. v. Local Union 759, Int'l Union of United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum & Plastic Workers, 461 U.S. 757, 764, 76 L. Ed. 2d 298, 103 S. Ct. 2177 (1983). This rule makes sense because parties who choose to have a dispute resolved by an arbitrator should not then be able to go into federal court and seek to reject the interpretation for which the parties bargained. Much like a referee's pass interference call, the key is not necessarily the correctness of the decision, but its finality. Without a final resolution of the matter, play cannot proceed.

 In order to keep the game of labor-management relations going, courts ordinarily defer to arbitrator's decisions. The arbitrator's award is legitimate so long as it "draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement," but may be set aside if it does not draw its essence from the agreement. United Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593, 597, 4 L. Ed. 2d 1424, 80 S. Ct. 1358 (1960). A mere ambiguity in the arbitrator's decision is not adequate to demonstrate that the arbitrator exceeded his or her authority Id. at 597-98. In fact, the scope of judicial review of ...


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