Flores Case Advances as Dolphins Claims Head to ‘Judge’ Goodell

A federal judge on Wednesday narrowed Brian Flores’ employment discrimination lawsuit against the NFL but advanced most of the claims brought by the now Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator.

In a 30-page ruling, Judge Valerie Caproni of the Southern District of New York held that Flores’ claims against his former employer, the Miami Dolphins, as well as claims brought by co-plaintiffs Steve Wilks and Ray Horton against their former employers (the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans, respectively), must be submitted to mandatory arbitration. Flores, however, can continue to bring claims against the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. Those are three teams that didn’t hire him—and, crucially here, didn’t enter into an employment contract with him—but that he charges engaged in race-based discrimination.

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Caproni’s reasoning was straightforward. NFL coaches’ employment contracts contain arbitration provisions that, though worded differently, share the same basic principle. As summarized by Caproni, “each agreement provides that the NFL Commissioner will oversee an alternative dispute resolution process for all disputes arising between the parties.” Coaches, therefore, contractually relinquish the right to sue their employing teams as a condition of employment. Mandatory arbitration provisions are not unique to the sports industry employment contracts and are usually enforceable.

Caproni wasn’t persuaded by Flores’ arguments that Goodell can’t lawfully serve as arbitrator due to possible bias. She cited Tom Brady’s case against the NFL over Deflategate, where Brady unsuccessfully argued that Goodell was biased.

“In the context of litigation arising out of allegations that the Patriots underinflated the balls they used in the American Football Conference Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2015, the Second Circuit rejected the argument that, as a matter of law, the NFL Commissioner cannot fairly arbitrate claims regarding the NFL’s conduct,” Caproni wrote. She added that Brady (through the NFLPA and the CBA) and Flores both knowingly agreed to contracts stating Goodell can serve as the arbitrator.

The NFL further maintained that Flores’ claims against non-employing teams (and accompanying ones against the NFL) are also subject to arbitration. The league noted that Flores was under contract with the New England Patriots when he interviewed with the Broncos. His Patriots contract required him to adhere to Section 8.3 of the NFL constitution, which holds the commissioner has “full, complete and final jurisdiction and authority to arbitrate . . . any dispute between any . . . coach . . . and any member club or clubs.”

But Caproni cited Massachusetts law which governed the Flores-Patriots contract, finding that “if the party seeking to enforce the arbitration provision retain[s] the unilateral discretion to alter its terms, without notice, the agreement to arbitrate is illusory and unenforceable.” That language is relevant here, Caproni wrote, because “the NFL and its member clubs have the unilateral ability to modify the terms of the NFL Constitution.”

In other words, because the NFL can change the constitution as it wishes, its inclusion of an arbitration provision isn’t enforceable when a coach interviews with another team.

Next up in the case is a pretrial conference on March 24 at the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in New York. The case is probably a long way from resolution. However, the parties could settle at any time.

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