The inherently complex collusion case filed by the NFLPA against the NFL could boil down to a pair of short and simple legal documents.
The antitrust lawsuits (filed by Reggie White and others in the early 1990s and by Tom Brady and others in 2011) and all other legal issues formally were resolved by the August 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which operates like a standard settlement agreement. But signing a settlement agreement doesn’t automatically end a legal case. Steps are still required to wipe the lawsuit off the court’s docket.
And so the NFL and NFLPA accomplished that by signing a “Stipulation of Dismissal,” a common legal document that formalizes a commitment to end litigation. On August 4, 2011, one lawyer for each side signed his name at the bottom of this agreement: “The parties stipulate to the dismissal with prejudice of all claims, known and unknown, whether pending or not, regarding the Stipulation and Settlement Agreement (‘SSA’) including but not limited to the claims asserting breach of the SSA related to (i) television contracts and broadcast revenues; and (ii) asserted collusion with respect to the 2010 League Year, excepting only the pending claim filed March 11, 2011 relating to an alleged rookie shortfall on the part of the Philadelphia Eagles.”
The “SSA” was the settlement document from the White antitrust lawsuit, under which the new collusion claim has been filed. The presence of terms in the stipulation like “known and unknown” and “pending or not” and “asserted collusion with respect to the 2010 League Year” will serve as strong ammunition for the NFL’s inevitable claim that the NFLPA waived in exchange for the new labor deal the new collusion claim.
NFLPA lead outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler fully understands that the “Stipulation of Dismissal” could derail the new collusion claim. During Wednesday’s conference call regarding the new filing, Kessler argued that the “Stipulation of Dismissal” was trumped by Judge David Doty’s order that actually dismissed the case.
“There was a stipulation as part of the Brady agreement that the parties said they would propose to the court,” Kessler said. “The court did not enter that proposed stipulation. . . . Instead the court did its own ruling, which it’s allowed to do, which says that only claims pending are dismissed. That’s it. That’s all the court was willing to do, and the court, as the guardian of the class, this is for the class action, has absolute authority on that.”
Asked whether the “Stipulation of Dismissal” would have prevented the present collusion case if Judge Doty had acted on the document, Kessler said, “Possibly.”
The NFL will dispute Kessler’s characterization of Judge Doty’s order. Actually, there was no separate order. Instead, the official docket sheet says only this: “TEXT ENTRY ONLY. IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that all claims pending regarding the Stipulation and Settlement Agreement are dismissed. All other outstanding motion are dismissed.”
Kessler believes this operates as a rejection of the “Stipulation of Dismissal,” in which the parties agree that “all claims, known and unknown, whether pending or not” will be dismissed, including claims for “asserted collusion with respect to the 2010 League Year.” The NFL believes that the text entry on the docket sheet merely represents the mechanical closing of the case by the court, especially since the docket sheet also shows the filing of the “Stipulation of Dismissal” with no subsequent entry indicating it had been stricken or otherwise ignored.
Thus, while there may be plenty of evidence of collusion in 2010 (and we fully suspect there is), the NFLPA will have a very hard time circumventing the content of the “Stipulation of Dismissal.” Even though the NFL believes that Judge Doty has a bias in favor of the NFLPA, all judges have a strong interest in seeing settled cases stay settled. It’s hard to envision any judge agreeing with the argument that the NFLPA isn’t bound by the plain language of the “Stipulation of Dismissal,” which as written encompasses the collusion claim filed on Wednesday, along with any other claims that the NFLPA could have asserted “known and unknown, whether pending or not” prior to August 4, 2011.
We continue to keep an open mind, and we’ll read with great interest the briefs and memos submitted by the parties on the question of whether the collusion case should be dismissed on the basis that the claim was forfeited in exchange for the new labor deal. For now, though, it appears that the collusion claim was one of the things that the NFLPA sacrificed in order to strike the current labor deal.