On February 26, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota vacated the arbitration decision upholding Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson’s suspension from the NFL. In challenging the arbitration decision, the NFL Players’ Association had a difficult legal standard to overcome, but the Association prevailed, and the court vacated the arbitration decision.
In the court’s decision, the court explained that although arbitrator’s decisions are entitled to substantial deference, the court must vacate an arbitration award if it fails to “draw its essence” from the parties’ collective bargaining agreement – including the “past practices of the industry and the shop.” The court then explained that the arbitration decision upholding AP’s suspension was inconsistent with past practices because it was based on retroactive application of a new NFL policy. The court noted that in another recent NFL disciplinary matter – the Ray Rice arbitration – the arbitrator “unequivocally recognized that the New Policy cannot be applied retroactively . . . .” In contrast, the arbitrator who decided AP’s case “simply disregarded the law of the shop” by allowing the policy to be applied retroactively. As a result, the court concluded that the arbitrator’s award did not “draw its essence” from the parties’ agreement.
The court also held that the arbitrator exceeded his authority under the parties’ agreement because he adjudicated the hypothetical issue of whether the suspension could be sustained under the NFL’s previous policy. The only issue presented to the arbitrator was “whether the New Policy could be applied retroactively.” There was no evidence in the record that the parties’ asked the arbitrator to decide whether the suspension could be upheld under the previous policy. Accordingly, the court held that the arbitrator “strayed beyond the issues submitted by the NFLPA and in doing so exceeded his authority.”
Takeaway: The NFL will likely appeal the district court’s decision. For now, the AP case shows that it is possible to vacate arbitration awards, even though it is often difficult to do so.