Judge at NFL lockout hearing alerts attorneys of her extensive research on case
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, presiding in St. Paul, Minn., is being asked by the players to impose an injunction that would halt the lockout and let business activities, such as free-agent signings, proceed until a labor deal can be struck.
The league's collective-bargaining agreement with the players expired last month, and after futile negotiations the NFL Players' Assn. decertified as a union. The league's owners then locked out the players.
Attorney Jim Quinn for the players told Nelson that she has the authority to impose the injunction due to "irreparable harm" the more than 800 unsigned players are suffering by not only missing paychecks but being deprived of team-organized conditioning.
"It can be decided right here in this courtroom," Quinn said to Nelson, rebutting the NFL's insistence that the merits of the union's decertification should first be reviewed by the slow-moving National Labor Relations Board.
"The players don't want to be represented by a union anymore," Quinn told the judge. "If they are, they get locked out." Quinn argued the matter is an anti-trust issue: "In the blink of an eye, all 32 owners [got] together and [said] they're not going to sign one of our players."
NFL attorney David Boies urged Nelson to consider the NLRB jurisdiction and pointed her to a federal labor act that he contended bars federal courts from imposing injunctions on lockouts.
Nelson is expected to take the matter under advisement for at least a few days before ruling, but she directed questions at Boies that put him on the defensive, particularly about case precedent that arms her to impose an injunction.
The NFL has called the players' decertification a "sham," the point Boies said he believes is best to be settled by the NLRB.
Nelson, a 2010 appointment of President Obama, alerted the attorneys at the hearing's start that she had done extensive research on the case. The players' anti-trust lawsuit, Brady vs. NFL, is also before her.
"We have a group of players who didn't want to be a union in 1993," Nelson said to Boies. "The players wanted to be protected and said [then] if the NFL wouldn't bargain in good faith, they'd decertify. I don't think [that] fits the model you're describing."
With former union head DeMaurice Smith in attendance, Boies said, "Whether [decertification] was a surprise or not doesn't affect how it goes against the [labor] act."
Nelson seconds later asked Boies how that act can "insulate a lockout" with no legal precedent to find.
When she asked Boies if he believed she had discretion to impose the injunction, Boies said that was "inaccurate."
Quinn then repeated to Nelson the lockout is "illegal."
Nelson's ruling is expected to be appealed to the 8th Circuit Appellate Court in St. Louis. She could also point the parties to mediation.
"You have to figure out how to get to plan C or D," she said to Boies. "I'm just pushing you."
-- Lance Pugmire in St. Paul, Minn.
Photo: U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson. Credit: Sheila Ryan / Associated Press