The NFL knows it is fighting an uphill battle against U.S. District Court Judge Amos Mazzant in hopes of getting him to stay his own decision of granting Dallas Cowboys star running Ezekiel Elliott a preliminary injunction to block a six-game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy.
The NFL had to follow the process of first requesting a stay with Mazzant before moving to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans for an emergency stay as well as an expedited action on the appeal officially filed with the Fifth Circuit on Monday.
Mazzant will decide next week. If rejected, the NFL will be forced to seek immediate relief with the appeals court.
Elliott will play Sunday for the second consecutive week, this time on the road against the Denver Broncos, and could end up playing the entire season.
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Whether or not the stay is granted, or if the case winds through the appeals court for months, NFL vice president of communications Joe Lockhart expects the league to ultimately prevail and Elliott to serve a six-game suspension over allegations of domestic violence against former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson.
Lockhart said Mazzant went past his limited scope of review in making the initial decision on the injunction, which he believes will be rejected in a higher court.
“[In] the arguments that we’re making, we believe strongly that the process was fair and we meticulously adhered to the process in the collectively bargained agreement,” Lockhart said. “As far as the argument to the Court of Appeals, we think that the scope and review in a labor arbitration case is very limited and we believe in this case, the judge went well beyond what he is permitted as far as scope. We expect to have our day in court to validate that point of view.”
Mazzant granted the preliminary injunction last week, citing that Elliott did not receive a fair appeals hearing before league-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson.
Mazzant ruled that Elliott would suffer irreparable harm if the suspension took effect while the legal case plays out, and that Elliott also met the other criteria necessary for an injunction.
He and the Fifth Circuit would have to reverse the decision based on the same reasoning, citing irreparable harm to the NFL if he didn’t serve the suspension immediately.
It’s unlikely that Mazzant will reverse his own decision when he rules on the motion.
The league will also be hard pressed to convince the Fifth Circuit court in New Orleans to approve the emergency stay based on irreparable harm, as Elliott still could serve the suspension next season if he loses in court.
Lockhart said he believes the NFL has a better chance with the higher court.
The courts have consistently sided with the NFL when it comes to these types of cases, most recently last year when the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s four-game suspension of New England quarterback Tom Brady in the “Deflategate” case.
It confirmed the power of Goodell under the CBA and the court’s deference to arbitration rulings.
The NFL say Elliott’s case is similar to Brady and that of New Orleans Saints running back Adrian Peterson’s child abuse case in that they deal with the same legal question of whether NFL followed the followed the correct procedures regarding its investigation, discipline and appeals policy through Article 46.
Mazzant acknowledges the cases are similar, but he also saw differences in regards to the denial of evidence and witnesses he couldn’t ignore.
During the appeals process, the NFLPA was denied access to investigators’ notes, to cross-examine Thompson and to question Goodell.
Mazzant said that “unlike in the Brady case, the evidence and testimony precluded is material, pertinent, and critically important.”
“This case involves essential evidence that was sought and denied resulting in a fundamentally unfair hearing,” Mazzant said in his decision to grant the injunction. “Fundamental unfairness is present throughout the entire arbitration process. Due to such fundamental unfairness, the Court’s intervention is justified. The NFLPA was not given the opportunity to discharge its burden to show that Goodell’s decision was arbitrary and capricious. At every turn, Elliott and the NFLPA were denied the evidence or witnesses needed to meet their burden. Fundamental unfairness infected this case from the beginning, eventually killing any possibility that justice would be served.”
Again, Lockhart and the NFL strongly disagree with Mazzant.
“We have a strikingly different view of the process than the judge,” Lockhart “We were incredibly meticulous, having been through the Brady and the Peterson cases, of exactly how to adhere to the arbitration process. We have found that in the most recent cases here, district courts [are] getting into the evidentiary parts of the case and the actual process of the case being pulled together.
“In our view, that is beyond what they should be looking at. We’ve read his ruling, we strongly disagree with the assessment he made on how he we adhered to the process. He may believe that the process that was collectively bargained can be improved or should be changed, and that’s one thing, but what the court of appeals will look at is how the process as written, was adhered to and was fair, and we will argue strongly that it was.”