Federal Judge Overturns Tom Brady’s Deflategate Suspension
A massive defeat in Court for the National Football League.
A Federal District Court Judge in Manhattan has overturned the penalties imposed on New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady over his alleged involvement in the so-called “Deflategate” scandal, meaning that Brady will be able to play when the NFL season opens next week and the NFL has been handed a major defeat:
In a major setback for the N.F.L., New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady prevailed in his battle to have his four-game suspension overturned on Thursday, as a federal judge reversed a ruling by Commissioner Roger Goodell to bench one of the league’s biggest stars in a dispute over underinflated balls he used in a January championship game.
Judge Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan did not rule on whether Brady tampered with the footballs in a bid for competitive advantage. Instead, he focused on the narrower question of whether the collective bargaining agreement between the N.F.L. and the players union gave Goodell the authority to carry out the suspension. Judge Berman ruled that it did not.
The 40-page decision picked apart the N.F.L.’s case, finding a number of “significant legal deficiencies” that reflected Berman’s skepticism in recent court hearings.
Berman said Brady could not be suspended for “general awareness” of others’ conduct, as an N.F.L. investigative report determined.
“The court finds that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs, and noncooperation with the ensuing investigation,” Berman wrote.
“No N.F.L. policy or precedent notifies players that they may be disciplined (much less suspended) for general awareness of misconduct by others,” he added.
Even if the league believed Brady had obstructed the investigation, by having a cellphone destroyed before it could be fully examined, the judge sided with Brady’s argument that “there is no evidence of a record of past suspensions based purely on obstructing a league investigation.”
He found the N.F.L. did not give Brady adequate notice of the potential penalty for the misconduct he was accused of and it had been denied sufficient access to the N.F.L.’s investigative files.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went too far in affirming punishment of the Super Bowl-winning quarterback, criticizing him for dispensing “his own brand of industrial justice.” Brady has insisted he played no role in a conspiracy to deflate footballs below the allowable limit at last season’s AFC Championship Game.
“Justice!” one Patriots source said.
Berman’s ruling does not necessarily end the dispute. The league can appeal, which would take place in the U.S. Appeals Court, 2nd Circuit. Neither side’s top lawyer immediately responded to an email seeking comment.
The suspension was “premised upon several significant legal deficiencies,”Berman wrote in his opinion, noting that an arbitrator’s factual findings are generally not open to judicial challenge.
The judge said that Brady had no notice he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs and for not cooperating with an investigation.
“Brady also had no notice that his discipline would be the equivalent of the discipline imposed upon a player who used performance enhancing drugs,” Berman said.
Brady also was denied equal access to investigative files, including witness interview notes, and didn’t have a chance to examine one of two lead investigators, the judge said.
The ruling was a surprise to some legal experts who believed Berman was merely pressuring the league to settle when he criticized its handling of the investigation and discipline over the past eight months.
The league brought the scandal to Berman’s Manhattan courtroom immediately once Goodell upheld Brady’s four-game suspension, blasting the quarterback for arranging the destruction of his cellphone and its nearly 10,000 messages just before he was interviewed for the NFL investigation. The union countersued, said Brady did nothing wrong and asked the judge to nullify the suspension.
Brady, of course, was implicated in the scandal that erupted after the AFC Championship Game in January during which the Indianapolis Colts alleged that the Patriots were using balls that did not fall with the the league’s pressure guidelines during the first half of the game. When the balls were tested at halftime, it was found that several of them were in fact below the required pressure, so they were re-inflated and the game continued with the Patriots ultimately playing better in the second half than they did in the first. After the game, though, the NFL began an investigation that centered around equipment managers for the Patriots but was also clearly aimed at Brady, who denied any knowledge of or involvement in an effort to flout the league’s rules. Later, it was revealed that it was later reported that as many as ten of the twelve balls that the Patriots brought to the game were under the required pressure. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl, of course, and even released their own report purporting to show that the deflation of the balls was due entirely to environmental factors. The league’s investigation continued, however, and in May a report was released that concluded that it was ‘more probable than not’ that Brady was involved in a conspiracy to deflate the balls below NFL standards prior to the AFC Championship Game, and possibly in other games as well. Based on that report, the league issued a series of sanctions against Brady and the Patriots, the most severe of which was the four game suspension that would have prevented Brady from playing during the entire month of September. Brady immediately appealed the punishment (under league rules the Patriots could not appeal the sanctions imposed on the team), but since the person hearing the appeal was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, that appeal was unsurprisingly denied. As a result, the parties went to court, with the NFL seeking to enforce its arbitration decision and Brady seeking to overturn it.
As I noted when I wrote about Goodell denying Brady’s appeal, it is exceedingly rare for Courts to overturn arbitration decisions. As a general rule, Judges tend to view arbitration as a form of private dispute resolution that should be encouraged. This is especially when it involves arbitration provided for under a contract negotiated between two sophisticated parties such as the NFL and the NFL Players Association. In order to overturn the ruling of an arbitrator, a Court must find either that the arbitration process was unfair in some respect or that the determination made by the arbitrators was not supported by the evidence presented. Because of the general judicial preference for encouraging out of court settlements, the bar for overturning an arbitrator’s decision is quite high, which is why my initial suspicion was that Brady was fighting an uphill battle in his effort to get the Court to overturn the sanctions imposed on him by the league and confirmed by the Commissioner.
In his decision, Judge Berman attacks both the procedure that was used to impose the sanctions against Brady and the evidence that the league contended supported its conclusion that he was involved in a conspiracy to flout league rules. On the procedure side, Berman spends a lot of time in his opinion discussing the fact that Brady was never given notice of the penalties he could face for either the scandal itself or for not cooperating with league investigators. Additionally, he was not given access to witnesses and evidence that the league used to reach its conclusions about him. On the evidentiary side, Berman seems to have accepted completed Brady’s argument that the evidence the NFL did have was too generalized to support a conclusion that he was involved in tampering with the game balls. In essence, then, Judge Berman ruled that the NFL violated the requirements of the Federal Arbitration Act in numerous ways, and that these violations required that the entire decision be vacated. The fact that this is a highly unusual thing for a Federal Judge to do in a case involving enforcement of arbitration decisions makes this decision all the more surprising, and perhaps argues that the leagues procedures need to be revised.
The NFL does have the right to appeal this matter to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, but it seems unlikely that they would be successful. An appellate court is not going to conduct its own independent review of the evidence that Judge Berman considered, and will instead uphold his factual findings unless it can be shown that they were clearly wrong. That doesn’t happen very often in Federal Courts, and it’s unlikely to happen here. Moreover, the fact that the season starts in a week makes it unlikely that any Court would be able to take any action before Brady steps onto the field for the Patriots’ first game.
If nothing else, this decision is yet another defeat for the NFL and Roger Goodell. In the past year, they have seen two other high profile punishment, most notably the ban imposed against Ray Rice for his assault on his wife, overturned by Federal Judges. Additionally, they have seen other punishments modified for the benefit of the players. In addition to the other credibility problems that the league has faced in recent years, these rulings have cast the league in a bad light with the public as a whole. Notwithstanding the fact that many people are likely to react to this decision based on how they feel about Tom Brady and the Patriots, this will likely lead to further damaging of the reputation of the league in general and Roger Goodell specifically.
Here’s the opinion: