Baltimore Sun

Judge shortens road in discrimina­tion suit

Decision on Goodell’s power to come in weeks, not months

- By Larry Neumeister

NEW YORK — A judge on Thursday made it likely she’ll rule in weeks rather than months whether NFL Commission­er Roger Goodell gets to decide the merits of racial discrimina­tion claims made by Black coaches against the league and its teams, saying an effort to gather more evidence seems like “an impermissi­ble fishing expedition.”

U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni said in a written ruling that lawyers for coaches Brian Flores, Steve Wilks and Ray Horton cannot gather additional evidence from defendants to support their arguments that the lawsuit in Manhattan federal court should remain in court rather than be sent to arbitratio­n. Her ruling makes it likely that a decision on whether to move the case to arbitratio­n or let it remain in Manhattan federal court will be decided in weeks rather than months.

“Because Plaintiffs should know whether they entered into any other contracts or agreements that would affect their agreement to arbitrate, the Court can only assume that they are attempting to embark on an impermissi­ble fishing expedition,” Caproni wrote.

Still, the judge said lawyers for the coaches may well be able to argue that the proposed arbitrator is so biased against them that the motion to compel arbitratio­n should not be granted, but they do not need discovery to do so. In legal cases, “discovery” references evidence such as emails and text messages that lawyers try to get from their opponents to strengthen their arguments. Flores, who was fired in January as head coach of the Dolphins and is now an assistant coach with the Steelers, filed the lawsuit in February, saying the league was “rife with racism” even as it publicly condemns it. The other coaches later joined the lawsuit, which sought unspecifie­d damages and class-action status.

The NFL and six of its teams say the lawsuit they maintain is “without merit” is required to go to arbitratio­n, where Goodell would be the arbitrator.

Caproni wrote that courts have not historical­ly allowed lawyers to gather evidence prior to deciding whether a case is required to go to arbitratio­n.

“An agreement to arbitrate is binding on the parties unless the agreement is invalid under state contract law,” she wrote. “Thus, on a motion to compel arbitratio­n, the Court’s analysis is generally limited to determinin­g whether there is a valid agreement to arbitrate, whether one party has failed to perform its duties under that agreement, and whether the agreement, properly interprete­d, encompasse­s the dispute at hand.”

Attorneys Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefteraki­s, representi­ng Flores, said in a statement that they are “confident that we will defeat the efforts of the NFL to move this matter into a private and confidenti­al arbitratio­n behind closed doors.”

“It is obvious that the NFL is trying to hide behind this process and avoid public scrutiny of the racial discrimina­tion and retaliatio­n claims we have brought. If they are confident in their defenses, they should let the process play out in court so the general public can see,” the lawyers said.

In Thursday’s ruling, Caproni instructed lawyers for the coaches to submit written arguments against arbitratio­n by Aug. 19 and told the NFL and its teams to respond by Aug. 26. Her decision came just days after the NFL released the results of its investigat­ion into allegation­s by Flores that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered $100,000 a game to purposely lose games.

Investigat­ors said the team didn’t intentiona­lly lose and neither Ross nor anyone from the team told Flores to purposely lose. And investigat­ors added that any $100,000a-game offer “was not intended or taken to be a serious offer.” Investigat­ors also found Ross several times during the season expressed his belief that draft position should take priority over won-loss record.

The NFL suspended Ross and fined him $1.5 million for having impermissi­ble communicat­ions with Tom Brady when he was under contract with the Patriots and with Sean Payton before he announced his decision to retire as coach of the Saints.

 ?? REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP ?? A judge on Thursday quickened the time it will take to rule whether Roger Goodell gets to decide the merits of racial discrimina­tion claims made by Black coaches against the league.
REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP A judge on Thursday quickened the time it will take to rule whether Roger Goodell gets to decide the merits of racial discrimina­tion claims made by Black coaches against the league.

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