Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NFL Cannot Remove Judge from Oversight Authority for Antitrust Consent Decree

This posting was written by Jeffrey May, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.

A federal district court judge can continue to oversee a 1993 settlement agreement that resolved an antitrust class action brought on behalf of professional football players against the National Football League, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis decided yesterday.

1993 Settlement

In April 1993, Hon. David S. Doty, U.S. District Judge for the District of Minnesota, issued an order (1993-2 Trade Cases ¶70,299), approving the settlement resolving a dispute arising out of various NFL player rules that had been the source of numerous disputes between players and the NFL.

Pursuant to the terms of the settlement, the court retained jurisdiction over its enforcement through appointment of a special master, who heard disputes on an expedited basis, subject to review by the court. In the years that followed, the court resolved numerous disputes over the terms of the settlement agreement and parallel Collective Bargaining Agreement that govern player employment in the NFL.

Present Dispute

In response to a decision by the district court against one of the member teams, the NFL filed a motion to terminate the district court’s oversight of the consent decree. In addition, the league requested that Judge Doty remove himself from the case because of a perception that he was biased. The district court denied the motions, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis has now affirmed.

Modification of Settlement Agreement

It was not an abuse of discretion for the federal district court to deny the NFL’s motion under Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to end the court's oversight of the settlement agreement, according to the appellate court. The league did not establish any changed circumstances warranting modification of the consent decree.

The NFL unsuccessfully argued that the district court’s oversight of the settlement agreement was no longer permissible because it amounted to unlawful meddling in the collective bargaining process, which was prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Brown v. Pro Football, Inc., 518 U.S. 231, 1996-1 Trade Cases ¶71,445. Brown did not constitute a change in the law requiring modification of the settlement agreement, the court explained.

Also rejected was the NFL's argument that the recertification of the players union, the resumption of collective bargaining, and the diminishing number of original class members who continued to play football constituted circumstances that warranted modification of the settlement agreement.


Judge Doty was not required to recuse himself from overseeing enforcement of the settlement agreement, the appellate court also held. The NFL argued that the judge should have recused himself because of his comments in the press and ex parte meetings with NFL Players Association representatives.

The judge's comments referring to rulings that he made many years earlier and relating to matters long since resolved would not be interpreted by the average person as reflecting bias, it was held. Moreover, the judge’s statement that he had laughed at an NFL request that the court end its oversight of the settlement agreement did not demonstrate that the judge failed to take the request seriously. The district court responded to the request with an eight-page order that addressed the legal issues that the NFL raised.

To the extent that Judge Doty’s statements were jocular and informal, the average observer would see that as reflective of his down-to-earth approach to resolving the oft-contentious disputes brought to him by the parties, the appellate court explained.

The appellate court did note, however, that “although we do not believe that the articles created a reasonable perception of bias . . . the district judge would have been well advised not to opine publicly about his role in enforcing an ongoing consent decree.”

Ex Parte Meetings

Finally, to the extent that the league relied on the ex parte meetings to support recusal, its motion was untimely. Although the NFL had been aware of the court's practice of exchanging pleasantries in chambers with representatives of the players association for a number of years, it voiced a complaint only after receiving an adverse decision with which it strongly disagreed, according to the appellate court.

The November 10 decision in Reggie White, et al. v. National Football League, will appear at 2009-2 Trade Cases ¶76,790.

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