Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson has an uphill climb in trying to overturn his punishment from the NFL. In order to win, AP will need to show that the arbitrator clearly exceeded his authority under the collective bargaining agreement.

On Friday, February 6, 2015, attorneys from the National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”) appeared in the United States District Court of Minnesota to argue that an arbitration order upholding the NFL’s punishment of AP for alleged child abuse should be overturned. The filings in the case are under seal, so the exact evidence and arguments before the court are not available for public review. Even without that information, however, the applicable legal standard is so deferential to arbitrators, that it will likely be difficult for the NFLPA to prevail.

For example, it will not be sufficient for AP to show that the arbitrator merely got the facts or the law wrong. The United States Supreme Court has held that the federal policy favoring the arbitration of labor disputes is so strong that courts should not review “claims of factual or legal error by an arbitrator as an appellate court does in reviewing decisions of lower courts.” Paperworkers v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38 (1987). Rather, “as long as the arbitrator is even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority, that a court is convinced he committed serious error does not suffice to overturn his decision.” Id.

Nor will it be sufficient for AP to show that the arbitrator misinterpreted the collective bargaining agreement.  Although an arbitrator may not ignore the plain meaning of a contract, courts have held that because the parties “authorized the arbitrator to give meaning to the language of the agreement, a court should not reject an award on the ground that the arbitrator misread the contract.”  Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. at 38.

On the other hand, an arbitrator’s power is not unlimited. The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) authorizes a court to vacate an arbitration award in a limited number of circumstances, including fraud, corruption, “evident partiality,” or when the arbitrator exceeds his or her authority. 9 U.S.C. § 10. Under these circumstances, courts will vacate an arbitration award if it “fails to draw its essence from the agreement” or if it “manifests disregard for the law,” such as “where the arbitrators clearly identify the applicable, governing law and then proceed to ignore it.” Boise Cascade Corp. v. PACE, Local 7-0159, 309 F. 3d 1075, 1080 (8th Cir. 2002). Given the leeway allowed for arbitrators to determine the facts and interpret (or misinterpret) the collective bargaining agreement, these are relatively difficult standards to satisfy.

In the AP case, the NFLPA argued both that the arbitrator was biased (because he was a former NFL executive) and that he exceeded his authority under the collective bargaining agreement. To show that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by upholding the NFL’s punishment of AP, the NFLPA argued that:

  1. The NFL’s six-game punishment for players involved in domestic violence, which was announced in August and finalized in December of 2014, was retroactively applied to AP for conduct that occurred in May of 2014;
  2. The collective bargaining agreement did not authorize the NFL to require AP to participate in assigned counseling chosen by the NFL; and
  3. The NFL’s placement of AP on the special exempt list before he pled guilty to the offense in Texas court, and before the six-game punishment was imposed, was “pre-discipline discipline” that was not authorized by the collective bargaining agreement.

Although AP has stated that he wants to return to the Vikings, the NFLPA wants the court to issue a decision on the case before March 10, 2015, when the NFL’s free agency and trading period starts.  The matter is now before the court to determine whether the NFLPA met the high standard necessary to vacate the arbitration award.

Takeaway: Although it’s not impossible, the NFLPA has a difficult legal standard to overcome in its efforts to vacate the arbitration decision upholding the NFL’s punishment of Adrian Peterson.