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Dickey v. National Football League

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 26, 2018

JAMES DICKEY, also known as Players1st Sports Management Group - SMG, Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE MANAGEMENT COUNCIL, and NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Indira Talwani United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff James Dickey, proceeding pro se, has filed a Complaint [#1] alleging claims for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, antitrust violations, and wrongful collusion against Defendants the National Football League (“NFL”), the National Football League Management Council (“NFLMC”), and the National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”). The NFLPA has filed a Motion to Compel Arbitration and Dismiss the Complaint or, in the Alternative, to Dismiss the Complaint for Failure to State a Claim [#16]. The NFL and NFLMC have filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint [#23]. For the reasons that follow, the NFLPA's motion to compel arbitration is DENIED. The NFLPA's alternative motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and the NFL and NFLMC's motion to dismiss are ALLOWED.

         I. Background

         a. Facts Relevant to the Motion to Dismiss[1]

         The NFL is a professional football league that consists of member teams known as “clubs.” Compl. ¶ 4 [#1]. The NFLPA is the labor union representing NFL players. Id. ¶ 2; see also Aff. of Jonathan J. Amoona Ex. B (“2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement”) xv [#18-2]. Owners of individual NFL clubs negotiate collectively with the NFLPA through the NFLMC, a professional management group that serves as the sole and exclusive bargaining representative of NFL club owners. Compl. ¶ 3. Over time, the NFLPA and NFLMC have entered into various iterations of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), including in 2011. Id. ¶¶ 6, 9-11.

         Pursuant to the CBA and its guidelines, agents seeking to represent players in individual contract negotiations must be certified by the NFLPA. Compl. ¶ 6. The CBA provides that “[t]he NFL and the Clubs recognize that, pursuant to federal labor law, the NFLPA will regulate the conduct of agents who represent players in individual contract negotiations with Clubs.” 2011 CBA Art. 48, § 1. The CBA prohibits clubs “from engaging in individual contract negotiations with any agent who is not listed by the NFLPA as being duly certified by the NFLPA in accordance with its role as exclusive bargaining agent for NFL players.” Id. The CBA further provides that the NFL Commissioner must disapprove any contract between an individual player and NFL club in which the player is represented by an agent who is not NFLPA-certified. Id. § 2. Clubs that knowingly enter into such prohibited contracts are subject to fines. Id. § 3.

         Dickey successfully applied for certification in 2007 and 2008. Compl. ¶ 6. Under the CBA guidelines, he was required to abide by the “Three Year Rule.” Id. ¶ 7. This rule provides for automatic expiration of an agent's certification if the agent is unable to negotiate an individual contract on behalf of a football player to an NFL club's active fifty-three-man roster within three years. Id. Because Dickey was unable to meet this requirement, his certification expired in 2011. Id. ¶ 8. Dickey alleges that he filed a notice of appeal, but was not granted an appeal hearing because of ongoing collective bargaining negotiations. Id. ¶ 9.

         Dickey successfully applied for recertification sometime after the NFLPA and NFLMC entered into a new CBA in 2011. Compl. ¶ 11. Dickey alleges that he observed disparity in treatment of new and “minority” agents, secret meetings and agreements between established agents and the NFLPA, and practices that permitted established agents to avoid decertification despite violating NFLPA rules and regulations. Id. ¶¶ 12-15. With respect to the Three Year Rule, Dickey alleges that the NFLPA and NFL allowed several agents to “act as one” by signing off on the same individual player's contract to an active roster, thereby allowing some agents to avoid decertification despite minimal involvement in negotiating contracts. Id. ¶ 21. Dickey was again decertified pursuant to the Three Year Rule, effective October 1, 2016. Id. ¶¶ 16, 18.

         b. Additional Facts Relevant to the Motion to Compel Arbitration[2]

         The “guidelines” referenced in Dickey's Complaint are regulations adopted by the NFLPA. See Aff. of Jonathan J. Amoona Ex. A (“NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations”) Introduction [#18-1].[3] The “Three Year Rule” provision of these Regulations provides: “[t]he Certification of any Contract Advisor who has failed to negotiate and sign a player to an NFL Player Contract (excluding Practice Squad Contracts) for at least one NFL player during any three-year period shall automatically expire at the end of such three-year period.” Id. § 2(G). The Regulations also include provisions for arbitration, including arbitration in connection with disciplinary action. Id. §§ 5, 6(E).

         Appendix A to the NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations is the Application for Certification, which provides that the applicant “agree[s] to comply with and be bound by these Regulations . . . and any subsequent amendments thereto, ” and that the applicant agrees that if he or she is “denied certification, or if subsequent to obtaining certification it is revoked or suspended pursuant to the Regulations, the exclusive method for challenging any such action is through the arbitration procedure set forth in the Regulations.” Id. App. A [#18-1].

         On September 30, 2016, Dickey wrote the NFLPA stating his objection “to the provision under section 2G of the NFLPA's Regulations Governing Contract Advisors (aka 3yr Rule) as an improper condition for continued certification and restraint on competition among agents duly qualified to represent the players of the NFL, and as under the guidance of the NFLPA.” Aff. of Jonathan J. Amoona Ex. C (“September 2016 Email”) [#18-3]. He requested “a fair and impartial hearing on all relevant issues to this matter prior to the automatic decertification and/or removal from the certified list of agents as submitted to the NFL & NFLMC.” Id. The NFLPA notified him that it had scheduled a hearing before the NFLPA's special arbitrator in Washington, D.C., on November 22, 2016. Aff. of Jonathan J. Amoona Ex. D (“October and November 2016 Emails”) [#18-4]. Dickey objected to the date based on his schedule and noted that he had learned that the NFLPA had already removed him from the official list of agents. Id.

         II. Motion to Compel Arbitration

         The NFLPA has moved pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., to compel arbitration of all of Dickey's claims and to dismiss the Complaint on that basis. As the party seeking to compel arbitration, the NFLPA must show “that a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, that the movant is entitled to invoke the arbitration clause, that the other party is bound by that clause, and that the claim asserted comes within the clause's scope.” Dialysis Access Ctr., LLC v. RMS Lifeline, Inc., 638 F.3d 367, 375 (1st Cir. 2011) (quotation omitted).

         The NFLPA argues that Dickey “agreed to ‘comply with and be bound by' the NFLPA Regulations, including the arbitration procedure thereunder.” Mem. in Supp. of NFLPA's Mot. 8 [#17]. In support it proffers the NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations and the blank Application for Certification form attached thereto as Appendix A.[4] The NFLPA has not provided the court with a signed copy of that form, but as Dickey does not dispute that he signed such an agreement, the court assumes that there is an agreement to arbitrate to the extent set forth in the Application for Certification form and NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations.

         The more difficult issue for the NFLPA is establishing that the claims asserted here come within the scope of that agreement. Had Dickey challenged the denial of a certification, that claim would fall squarely within the arbitration agreement. See NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations, App. A, Application for Certification (agreeing that the exclusive method for challenging the denial of a certification is through the arbitration procedure set forth in the Regulations); id. § 5(A)(1) (“This arbitration procedure shall be the exclusive method for resolving any and all disputes that may arise from the . . . [d]enial by the NFLPA of an applicant's Application for Certification”); id. §§ 2(D), 5 (setting forth the procedure for filing an appeal from denial of certification and invoking arbitration). Similarly, if after becoming certified, Dickey had challenged the revocation or suspension of his certification, that claim also would fall squarely within the arbitration agreement. See NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations, App. A, Application for Certification (agreeing that the exclusive method for challenging the revocation or suspension of a certification is through the arbitration procedure set forth in the NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations); id. § 6(E) (setting forth the procedure for filing an appeal and invoking arbitration challenging revocation or suspension of certification). But Dickey's Complaint does not challenge the denial of or any revocation or suspension of a certification. Instead, it challenges the NFLPA, NFL, and NFLMC's enforcement (or selective enforcement) of the Three Year Rule and the expiration of Dickey's certification.

         The NFLPA argues that these challenges fall within § 5(A)(4) of the NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations. That section provides that the arbitration procedure set forth in the Regulations “shall be the exclusive method for resolving any and all disputes that may arise from . . . [a]ny other activities of a Contract Advisor within the scope of these Regulations . . . .” (Emphasis added). The Regulations define Contract Advisor “activities” to include:

the providing of advice, counsel, information or assistance to players with respect to negotiating their individual contracts with Clubs and/or thereafter in enforcing those contracts; the conduct of individual compensation negotiations with the Clubs on behalf of players; and any other activity or conduct which directly bears upon the Contract Advisor's integrity, competence or ability to properly represent NFL players and the NFLPA in individual contract negotiations, including the handling of player funds, providing tax counseling and preparation services, and providing financial advice and investment services to individual players.

Id. §1(B). As Dickey highlights, Section 5(A)(4) applies only to disputes over a Contract Advisor's activities, and not to disputes over the NFLPA's actions.

         Moreover, the arbitration provision in § 5(A)(4), like the provision in §§ 5(A)(2), (3), (5) and (6), [5] and unlike the provisions concerning the denial of a certification or imposition of discipline and discharge discussed above, can only be invoked in disputes between a Contract Advisor and an NFL player, or between multiple Contract Advisors, and not in disputes between Contract Advisors and the NFLPA. Section 5(B) explains that “a dispute under Section 5(A)(2)-(6) shall be initiated by the filing of a written grievance either by the player or Contract Advisor.” For grievances initiated by a Contract Advisor, Section 5(B) then details the steps that must be followed with regard to a grievance against a player or another Contract Advisor. Section 5(B) does not contemplate any grievances against the NFLPA.

         That the § 5(A) mandatory arbitration provision does not apply to the Three Year Rule is confirmed by the absence of any apparent means to challenge the application of the Three Year Rule. Section 2(G) of the NFLPA Contract Advisor Regulations provides that “[t]he Certification of any Contract Advisor who has failed to negotiate and sign a player to an NFL Player Contract (excluding Practice Squad Contracts) for at least one NFL player during any three-year period shall automatically expire at the end of such three-year period.” Further, the CBA provides that “[t]he NFLPA agrees that it shall not delete any agent from its list until that agent has exhausted the opportunity to appeal the deletion pursuant to the NFLPA's agent regulation system, except: . . . (v) where the agent's certification has expired due to the agent's inactivity in individual contract negotiations.” ...


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