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 8th Circuit Court grants extension of stay, lockout a certainty for now

For those hoping that the generally pro-business 8th Circuit Court would somehow see the players' side of things and lift the lockout that has been in place with one minor break since March, it's time for a reality check. On Monday afternoon, the court came down with a 24-page ruling (which you can read here) which extended the lockout on the owners' behalf, and cited the court's opinion that the owners had a solid case on the merits — that this dispute is a labor fight at its heart as opposed to an antitrust issue requiring litigation.

It was the first real victory for the league in a court of law in a very long time, and sets things up for the Brady v. NFL appeal hearing that begins on June 3.

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The court first laid out the parameters, as detailed below:

Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 8(a) governs the power of a court of appeals to stay an order of a district court pending appeal. Under that Rule, we consider four factors in determining whether to issue a stay: "(1) whether the stay applicant has made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured absent a stay; (3) whether issuance of the stay will substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding; and (4) where the public interest lies."

 Then, the court basically blurred the NFLPA's line of decertification, citing the Norris-LaGuardia Act that the owners had been citing all along. Basically, Norris-LaGuardia limits the court's jurisdiction in matters arising from a labor dispute, whether or not the side representing a group of workers is a union, or a decertified union now acting as a trade association. In its ruling, the court not only set apart its own opinion, but also cast aspersions on the ruling given by Judge Susan B. Nelson in the District Court.

The district court reasoned that this case does not involve or grow out of a labor dispute because the Players no longer are represented by a union. We have considerable doubt about this interpretation of the Act. The plain language of the Act states that a case involves or grows out of a labor dispute when it is "between one or more employers or associations of employers and one or more employees or associations of employees." 29 U.S.C. § 113(a)(1) (emphasis added). The Act does not specify that the employees must be members of a union for the case to involve or grow out of a labor dispute.

And that's a problem for the NFLPA's side of things — the Appellate Court didn't rule that the players had no right to decertify; a ruling that would have been trounced on appeal. Instead, the Appellate Court drew a line in the sand between letter and spirit of the law and told the NFLPA that if it looks like a union, and walks like a union, and talks like a union, that's what it is.

In sum, we have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League's lockout, and accordingly conclude that the League has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits.

In a word, ouch.

The Appellate court then ruled that the entire "irreparable harm" argument, the one on which the entire Brady v. NFL case stands, actually tilts in favor of the league, because it would be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle after a free agency period, leading any lift of a lockout to play out as a de facto win for the NFLPA, whether that was the court's intent or not.

This is a case in which one party or the other likely will suffer some degree of irreparable harm no matter how this court resolves the motion for a stay pending appeal. We do not agree, however, with the district court's apparent view that the balance of the equities tilts heavily in favor of the Players. The district court gave little or no weight to the harm caused to the League by an injunction issued in the midst of an ongoing dispute over terms and conditions of employment. The court found irreparable harm to the Players because the lockout prevents free agents from negotiating contracts with any team, but gave no weight to harm that would be caused to the League by player transactions that would occur only with an injunction against the lockout. The court gave full weight to affidavit evidence submitted by the Players, although that proof was untested by cross-examination at a hearing.

The district court's analysis was conducted without the benefit of knowledge that this appeal will be submitted for decision on a highly expedited schedule — a circumstance that should minimize harm to the Players during the off-season and allow the case to be resolved well before the scheduled beginning of the 2011 season.

Finally, the court spoke to public interest.

In this legal context, we see no reason to differentiate between the public interest and the proper application of the federal law regarding injunctions. In sum, we think the League has met its burden to demonstrate that it likely will suffer some degree of irreparable harm without a stay, and the balance of the equities does not favor the Players so decidedly that it should outweigh our present view about likelihood of success on the merits.

There are several arguments the players can take to this ruling, starting with whatever the results are when Judge David Doty rules on the lockout insurance case damages. Today's results simply put a certainty to what most everybody already knew — that we'd all better get ready for the continuation of a long, excruciating fight between the owners and players.

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