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Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, and an Explosive Legal Showdown

By Joseph M. Hanna – December 2, 2014

Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has been the center of attention for the 2014 National Football League (NFL) season without playing in a single game. Rice was suspended for two games after a February 2014 video showed him apathetically dragging his then-fiancée Janay Palmer facedown and unconscious out of an Atlantic City hotel elevator. Rice was indicted by a grand jury on aggravated assault charges but was later accepted into a pretrial intervention program, allowing him to avoid a trial and jail time. Following these charges, the NFL imposed a two-game suspension on Rice.


In September, TMZ leaked the infamous elevator video, which captured Rice hitting Palmer in the Atlantic City hotel, knocking her unconscious. The Ravens quickly terminated Rice’s contract, releasing him from the team, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that Rice would be suspended indefinitely. Despite the fact that Goodell changed Rice’s suspension to indefinite status following the elevator video, the commissioner was widely criticized for failing to address the elevator videotape in the first place.


Rice is now appealing the NFL’s decision to suspend him indefinitely, with a hearing scheduled for November 5–6. However the arbitrator decides the appeal, Rice and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) have a number of legal arguments for challenging the indefinite suspension.


The “One Penalty” Rule
At the forefront of Rice’s challenge is Article 46 of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Article 46, section 4, known as the “one penalty” rule, bars the commissioner and a team from both disciplining a player for engaging in the same act or conduct. See Michael McCann, “Ray Rice, Roger Goodell Face Multiple Legal Options Stemming from Scandal,” Sports Illustrated, Sept. 10, 2014. This clause suggests that the NFL cannot punish Rice twice for the Atlantic City hotel incident.


Rice can indeed argue that he was punished twice for the same conduct. First, the NFL suspended him for a two games following the aggravated assault charges. The NFL again punished Rice after the TMZ elevator video leaked. While the NFL purportedly did not have knowledge of the elevator video at the time they imposed the two-game suspension, it is arguable that the elevator video and the hallway video are the same act of domestic violence. Both videos take place in adjacent locations within the same hotel and occur just minutes apart.


However, the NFL will likely argue that the two videos portray two very different acts of violence, justifying two separate punishments. Rice’s first punishment, levied in July, stems from the video of Rice pulling his unconscious wife from the elevator. The second punishment, the NFL could argue, is predicated on the video depicting Rice punching his wife. Focusing on the separate conduct policy violations—domestic abuse and tarnishing the NFL’s image—will be integral to making the argument for two separate punishments.


In addition, Goodell implied in a CBS interview on September 10, 2014, that Rice was untruthful about the elevator incident, generating stronger leverage to justify the indefinite suspension. If Rice was untruthful or ambiguous in relating his story to Goodell, it would provide the commissioner with good reason to revisit the original punishment. It would also undermine the NFLPA’s claims under the governing labor law that prohibits two punishments for the same action when all of the relevant facts are available


In rebutting the NFLPA’s argument that Goodell violated the one-penalty rule, the NFL could take a strict textual approach and argue that the rule does not operate to restrict the commissioner to one penalty per offense. Article 46, which states that “[t]he Commissioner and a Club will not both discipline a player for the same act or conduct,” only prohibits a team and the commissioner from each punishing a player for the same violation. The language does not, however, explicitly prohibit the commissioner from revisiting a previous punishment or punishing two offenses stemming from the same act. Thus, in its current form, Article 46 only precludes both entities from disciplining a player for the same act.


Even if Rice’s challenge based on the one-penalty rule does not pass muster, Rice may succeed on another defense. He could argue that the NFL had knowledge of the elevator video but declined to incorporate it into Rice’s two-game suspension and that, therefore, the NFL waived the right to use the elevator video for new punishment. Nevertheless, Rice may face the arguably strong counterargument that the harm caused to the NFL’s image as a result of the elevator video is grounds for an additional suspension or a modification of the original two-game suspension.


An “Arbitrary and Capricious” Standard of Review
If unsuccessful on the appeal of his punishment, Rice could look to the federal courts for help. Success there is also unlikely, however, as courts are extremely deferential to the NFL as a decision maker. Courts normally review NFL interpretations and adjudications of its own rules under an “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review, a standard that favors organizations and imposes a heavy burden on challengers to establish that the organization abused its power and lacked reasonable grounds for its interpretation of the rules. Under this standard, Rice would need to show deception and dishonesty on the part of Goodell in his decision to impose the indefinite suspension. Even if Rice could demonstrate that this was the case, the NFL’s personal conduct policy is drafted so broadly that a court would be unlikely to invalidate Goodell’s interpretation of the policy.


In support of his claim, Rice could rely on the NFL’s investigation process leading to his first suspension. During this investigation, the NFL gathered evidence and requested “any and all information about the incident, including the video from inside the elevator.” Roger Quiles, “Why Rice Should Sue the NFL,” Sept. 10, 2014. The NFL also stated that “[the elevator] video was not made available to us and no one in our office saw it until [TMZ released it].” Despite being aware of the elevator video’s existence, Goodell decided to discipline Rice for only two games. Accordingly, Rice’s indefinite suspension may have no rational basis, and thus fail under the arbitrary and capricious standard, because the NFL cannot claim that the contents of the elevator video are new evidence, given that they had knowledge of its existence during the first disciplinary action.


The NFL would counter these arguments by maintaining that knowledge of the existence of the elevator tape does not preclude the league from issuing separate punishments for what were in fact two violations. Rice’s act of dragging his unconscious wife out of the elevator—caught on tape—garnered his first suspension of two games; the elevator video itself and the harm it caused to the league constituted the second violation of the NFL’s conduct policy and CBA and resulted in Rice’s indefinite suspension. While the two incidents are clearly related, the damage each caused is separate and significantly distinct. For example, it was not until after the elevator video was released that many big name sponsors, led by Budweiser, threatened to pull their support of the NFL. On these facts, the NFL would have a compelling claim that these were separate violations.


For Rice and the NFLPA, the main concern is that the NFL must be forced to discipline players correctly the first time. If the NFL has the power to continue punishment through modification, then no discipline is final. In recent talks between the NLFPA and the NFL, discussions surrounding the conduct policy prompted a demand for changes. The NFLPA is stressing that due process for all players is a fundamental right, not merely a privilege. The current policy is not entirely clear on this issue, and the NFLPA wants it rectified.


Rice has since filed a grievance against the Baltimore Ravens and is seeking league reinstatement. Paragraph 11 of the standard NFL player contract, incorporated in the CBA, states that a team has complete discretion to terminate a player’s contract for any conduct reasonably judged to affect the team adversely. Rice will likely need to claim collusion between Goodell and the league to be persuasive in his arguments, which will similarly rely on the claim of dual punishments for one violation.


At the November hearing, Goodell will testify about the sequence of events surrounding the incident. Regardless of the outcome for Rice, if Goodell’s testimony exposes any evidence of league misdoing, the commissioner and the NFL could face a litany of problems and even greater public and media scrutiny.

Keywords: litigation, minority trial lawyer, Ray Rice, one penalty rule, appeal

Joseph M. Hanna is a partner at Goldberg Segalla in Buffalo, New York.

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