By Steven Stamps
A three judge panel from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against the NFL in a landmark decision that could affect all of professional sports in the United States. The court affirmed a district court decision that Minnesota statutory claims alleged by Kevin Williams and Pat Williams of the Minnesota Vikings are not preempted by §301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185. The players’ claims will be heard in Minnesota state court following the 2009 NFL season.
Kevin Williams and Pat Williams (no relation) of the Minnesota Vikings filed suit against the NFL in December in an attempt to avoid a four game suspension. The players were suspended along with three New Orleans Saints players after testing positive for bumetanide. Bumetanide is a diuretic that is banned under the NFL Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances because it is often used to mask steroids. The players proved that bumetanide was an ingredient in an over the counter weight loss supplement known as StarCaps. The Vikings players admitted to taking StarCaps, which did not include bumetanide as a listed ingredient. The Williams were successful in obtaining an injunction allowing them to finish the 2008 season. In June, a federal judge dismissed all of the players’ claims except for those that were based on Minnesota statutory law. These claims are to be heard in Hennepin County District Court. The NFL appealed the federal court’s decision to the 8th Circuit. In July, Hennepin County District Court Judge Gary Larson issued a temporary restraining order allowing the players to play until the case is decided.
The players’ state law claims are based on the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act (DATWA) and the Minnesota Consumable Products Act (CPA). The DATWA requires employers to give employees an opportunity to attend drug counseling before disciplining them for a first time drug offense. The DATWA also allows employees to offer information that could explain a positive drug test. The CPA protects employees from discipline for using “lawful consumable products…off the premises of the employers during nonworking hours.”
The court started its analysis with the DATWA claim. The NFL’s first argument was that, “the claim turns on analysis of the Policy in order to determine whether it ‘meets or exceeds’ DATWA’s requirements.” The court wrote, “Here, a court would have no need to consult the Policy in order to resolve the Players’ DATWA claim. Rather, it would compare the facts and the procedure that the NFL actually followed with respect to its drug testing of the Players with DATWA’s requirements for determining if the Players are entitled to prevail. Such a claim is not preempted.” Secondly, the NFL argued that, “the claim requires interpretation of the Policy in order to determine whether the NFL qualifies as an employer under DATWA such that the statute’s protections extend to the Players.” The court rejected this argument writing:
“The NFL does not point to a specific provision of either the CBA or the Policy which must be interpreted. The CBA’s Preamble provides that NFL players are ‘employed by a member club of the National Football League[.]’ CBA, Preamble. Appendix C to the CBA contains the ‘NFL Player Contract,’ 11 which provides that the contract ‘is between . . . [the] ‘Player,’ and . . . ‘Club,’ . . . as a member of the National Football League.’ Id. App. C at 248. The contract further states: ‘Club employs Player as a skilled football player. Player accepts such employment.’ Id. None of these references require interpretation, only mere consultation, which is insufficient to warrant preemption of an otherwise independent state law claim.”
Finally, the NFL claimed that, “uniform interpretation of the CBA/Policy is necessary to preserve the integrity of the NFL’s business as a national organization.” The Eighth Circuit quoted a similar case from the Supreme Court writing:
There is no “suggestion that Congress, in adopting § 301, wished to give the substantive provisions of private agreements the force of federal law, ousting any inconsistent state regulation. Such a rule of law would delegate to unions and unionized employers the power to exempt themselves from whatever state labor standards they disfavored. Clearly, § 301 does not grant the parties to a [CBA] the ability to contract for what is illegal under state law.”
The court rejected all of the NFL’s arguments, therefore the players’ DATWA claim was not preempted under § 301.
As to the CPA claim, the NFL first argues that “whether the Policy’s ban on bumetanide violates the CPA requires interpretation of the Policy in order to determine whether the ban is a bona fide occupational requirement or necessary to avoid a conflict of interest.” The court ruled that these defenses to liability are not relevant to their §301 analysis. The NFL’s second argument was, “the CPA only applies to the use of substances ‘off the premises of the employer’ and ‘during nonworking hours’ such that a court would have to analyze the CBA and the Policy in order to determine whether the CPA applies here.” The court rejected this argument because the NFL had the burden to establish preemption of the claim and neither the CBA nor the policy contained anything “relevant to the question of what constitutes ‘off the premises of the employer’ and ‘during nonworking hours.’” The NFL’s final argument was that, “the Players waived their rights under the CPA when the Union, their bargaining agent, became a party to the Policy.” The court did not agree with the NFL’s argument writing, “Because the CPA undisputedly creates rights independent of the CBA or the Policy, they cannot be waived or altered by the Union’s agreement to the CBA and the Policy.” The court again was not swayed by any of the NFL’s arguments and held that the player’s CPA claim was not preempted under § 301.
The court’s opinion will cause all other professional sports leagues to take notice. Under this precedent, professional athletes will be protected the laws of their specific state as opposed to one league wide policy. For example, the three other players were suspended for bumetanide at the same time as Pat Williams and Kevin Williams will not have the same protections as the Vikings players and may be subject to discipline that the Vikings players do not receive. So far the NFL has held off on enforcing their suspensions until this case has made it through the court system. It is still possible that the NFL appeals the case to the Supreme Court and gets a reversal. As for now, the fate of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams rests in a Minnesota court room and the even playing field of a collectively bargained drug policy has been tilted.