« An overbroad defense of universal injunctions | Main | My Student Guide to Judicial Clerkships »

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

NFLPA victim of drive-by jurisdictional ruling

The Fifth Circuit last week reversed a district court order enjoining the NFL from carrying out the six-game suspension of Dallas Cowboy running back Ezekiel Elliott because of a domestic-violence incident. I saw the story, but assumed that the court of appeals had reversed for the usual reasons that courts of appeals reverse in these sports cases--the district court had been insufficiently deferential to the arbitrator decision (see, e.g., Tom Brady and Deflategate). And because I do not write on those issues and because I do not like or watch football anymore (and my antipathy for the sport and the league grows), I did not write anything on it.

But a reaction paper from one of my Fed Courts students revealed that the Fifth Circuit issued the dreaded drive-by jurisdictional ruling. A 2-1 divided court held that the district court lacked jurisdiction because the Elliott and the NFLPA had not exhausted CBA grievance processes, which placed a claim for relief "beyond 'judicial review.'" The court stated that Arbaugh, Henderson, and other recent jurisdictionality decisions did not change SCOTUS or Fifth Circuit precedent treating exhaustion as jurisdictional in the labor context. Judge Graves dissented, arguing that jurisdiction was established when a plaintiff claims a violation of a contract between an employer and a labor organization and that the grievance procedures appeared in the CBA, not the LMRA.

Under Scott Dodson's theory (and I think Scott cracked the problem of defining jurisdiction in a principled way),exhaustion is jurisdictional, because it measures when a case can enter a court or move to a court from another body (such as an arbitration panel). But the Fifth Circuit is descriptively wrong under recent decisions and the direction of the doctrine. Very little is jurisdictional anymore, especially when it does not appear in a statute. The "beyond judicial review" language (drawn from a 1967 SCOTUS case) is the sort of loose, figurative language that SCOTUS had used and attached jurisdictional labels, without thinking through the logic or consequences of the label; this is the language Justice Ginsburg had in mind when she introduced, and argued for limiting the effect of, drive-by jurisdictional rulings. And statutory exhaustion (as under Title VII) is not jurisdictional; it seems inconceivable that a statutory requirement would not limit the court's jurisdiction, but a private contractual obligation, not required by any statute, could strip a court of its structural adjudicative authority.

The question is what happens next. Elliott's first game of the suspension is next Sunday. The NFLPA has asked the Fifth Circuit for en banc review and also sought its own TRO in the Southern District of New York (where the NFL offices are located). The jurisdictional basis for the ruling was wrong, but that does not mean that the court of appeals was wrong that Elliott failed to exhaust his contractual remedies and that the injunction should not have issued. Elliott and the NFLPA may have properly lost, just on 12(b)(6) rather than 12(b)(1) grounds.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 17, 2017 at 01:10 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink

Comments

A good, clearheaded, and thus surprisingly early citation for exhaustion's non-jurisdictionality is Mathews v. Eldridge, which of course is much more famous for other things. There, exhaustion is both treated as waivable and excusable. Of course, it still may be jurisdictional under Dodson's typology.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Oct 17, 2017 2:12:40 PM

Post a comment