By Jeff Birren, Senior Writer
Rontez Miles played safety for the New York Jets. “Miles has an eye condition ‘known as alopecia areata’ that he claims causes him to experience ocular photosensitivity and photophobia and limits his ability to see well in sunlight or artificial light” (Miles v. The National Football League et al, USDC New Jersey,2:19-cv-18327-JXN-JSA (11-21-22), all quotes are from the opinion). For several seasons Miles “used a protective shield…while practicing or playing.” In 2017, an “NFL equipment judge demanded that he remove the protective shield…or he would not be permitted to play.” He subsequently suffered a “severe and significant injury that included a “broken orbital bone in his right eye.” His NFL career subsequently ended during the 2019 season.
Two years later, Miles sued the NFL in New Jersey State Court, alleging claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) because the NFL would not let him wear his protective shield. The NFL removed the case to the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, and recently that court dismissed the former Jets player’s lawsuit.
Miles played college football at Pennsylvania Western University. Following the 2012 college season, he signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent. As an NFL player, Miles was a member of the National Football League Players’ Association (“NFLPA”) that has a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) with the NFL. Miles was released in August 2013 and spent much of the 2013 season on the team’s practice squad. In 2014, he was promoted to the active squad. However, in Week 17 of that season, he was injured and placed on the Reserve Injured list. Miles began the 2018 season on the active squad. Unfortunately, he had a torn meniscus and was again placed on the Reserve Injured list. Miles returned to the active roster later that November. In 2019, he was on the active roster until November 19, when, due to neck and hip injuries, he was placed on the Reserve Injured list. His NFL career ended shortly thereafter.
The Initial Lawsuit
Miles sued the NFL and five Doe defendants in New Jersey Superior Court in 2019 (Miles v. National Football League & Does 1-5, Superior Court of New Jersey, Morris County, MRS L 1770-19 (8-19-2019)). The complaint had three allegations charging the NFL with violations of LAD and ADA for failing to make necessary accommodations for his eye problems that led to an injury that ended his NFL career.
The NFL removed the case to federal court. The notice of removal included a declaration by Lawrence Ferazani, NFL Management Council General Counsel, containing a copy of the CBA. In a footnote, the Court stated that Miles’ amended complaint “expressly refers to the CBA and the CBA is integral to Plaintiff’s allegations that the NFL ‘waived’ provisions of requirements in the CBA.”
In Federal Court
On October 16, 2019, the NFL filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, “contending that Plaintiff’s claims” were preempted by federal labor law “because the allegations are inextricably intertwined with the CBA and incorporated Official Playing Rules.” Miles filed his opposition on December 4, 2019. The NFL filed its reply brief on December 20, 2019.
The Clock is Reset
Prior to oral argument, Miles filed an amended complaint on June 23, 2020. It had six causes of action, including the LAD and ADA claims. The third claim was for negligence, followed by a claim that the NFL waived any provision in the CBA when it previously allowed Miles to play with the protective shield. The fifth claim was that his claims did “not depend on an interpretation of the CBA.” Finally, the sixth claim was against ‘Does 1-5’ and ‘Does 1-6’ for the “stated LAD and ADA” claims.
The NFL filed another motion to dismiss in August 2020. Miles filed his opposition in September, and the NFL replied in October. In April 2021, the parties were ordered to participate in mediation, which failed. By August of 2021, Miles filed a supplemental opposition, and the NFL replied.
The Court’s Analysis
The Court stated the legal standard on a motion to dismiss “places a considerable burden on the defendant seeking dismissal.” A court must first state the elements of each claim, then state which allegations “are mere conclusory and therefore not be given an assumption of truth” and finally, “ascertain” whether the remaining allegations “plausibly give rise to a right of relief.” The Court began with counts one, two, and six of the amended complaint.
In count one, Miles alleged that he was discriminated against because of his disability. In count two, he alleged that the NFL “failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability in order to perform the duties of his employment.” In count six, he alleged that the ‘Doe’ defendants “aided and abetted the NFL in violating” those claims. The NFL argued that those claims “cannot be resolved without interpreting the CBA and the incorporated Official Playing Rules.”
Federal labor law “mandate[s] resort to federal rules of law in order to ensure uniform interpretation” of CBAs and to “promote the peaceable, consistent resolution of labor-management disputes,” citing Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef, Inc, 486 U.S. 399, (1988). These disputes “must be resolved by reference to federal law.” If a claim depends “upon the meaning” of a CBA term, “the application of state law…is preempted by federal labor law” per Lingle. Such claims are preempted “because the Court must address the legal effect” of the CBA’s “bargained Player Contract and interpret the CBA to determine whether there is a legally recognizable employment relationship between” Miles and the NFL. It would further need “to analyze the CBA” and “Official Playing Rules to determine whether the NFL had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its alleged refusal to permit Plaintiff to wear the shield.”
The NFL cited a New Jersey Supreme Court decision wherein a “plaintiff who was legally blind in his right eye” claimed that the New Jersey Transit Rail Operations “violated the LAD by requiring him to wear protective eyeglasses, which he claimed further hindered his eyesight.” That plaintiff’s claim was preempted by federal law because the claim “hinged on interpreting the CBA provision.”
Miles argued that his claims did not require an interpretation of the CBA. The Court disagreed. The Court determined that his contract was with the Jets, and “is in accordance with a CBA between the NFL and the NFLPA.”
Yet, to “adjudicate the discrimination claim, the Court must address” whether Miles had an employment relationship with the NFL. Furthermore, the Court would “have to interpret the CBA to determine whether the NFL had obligations under the CBA or incorporated documents to make certain accommodations” for Miles. Thus, the LAD and ADA claims “substantially depend on whether the NFL’s action were aligned with the CBA and are therefore preempted.”
The Court also found that with respect to the “vaguely asserted” ADA claims asserted in counts two and six, Miles conceded that he “did not file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, which is a mandatory prerequisite to suit under the ADA.” Therefore, his ADA claims “must be dismissed for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies.” Therefore, the Court dismissed counts one, two and six with prejudice.
For count three, however, the question was whether this claim was “sufficiently independent” of the CBA “to withstand the pre-emptive force” of federal law. Miles argued that the NFL “owed him a duty of care ‘to help him avoid injury while playing football’ and that was breached when it ‘prohibited him from utilizing protective equipment.’” The NFL countered that any such duty “can only be ascertained by interpreting provisions in the CBA and the Official Playing rules, which carefully allocate responsibilities for player safety and medical care among the NFL, the NFLPA, the Clubs, the Club physicians and the players.” The Court agreed.
A New Jersey Supreme Court case stated that the elements of a negligence claim are a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty, a consequent injury proximately caused by that breach, and damages. Federal cases cited within this Court’s opinion held that when the resolution of such a claim is substantially dependent on an analysis of the terms of a CBA, the claim must either be treated as a federal law claim or dismissed. Miles’ amended complaint stated that he had been a professional football player employed by the Jets. The NFLPA is the “exclusive bargaining representative of all NFL players” and that Miles’ employment with the Jets “was in accordance” with the CBA. The CBA “governs the respective rights and responsibilities of the NFL, the Clubs, the NFLPA, and the players with respect to, among other subjects, player health and safety, player attire and equipment, and the remedies and benefits available to players in the event of an injury sustained while performing services under an NFL Player Contract.” Moreover, the “CBA requires NFL players and Clubs to follow the rules promulgated by the NFL concerning the operation of the game.”
Consequently, “the Court would have to interpret the CBA and Official Playing Rules and related documents” to “determine whether the NFL owed Plaintiff a duty of care as alleged in his Amended Complaint.” The Court would then have to determine whether the NFL “acted in accordance” with those provisions, or if it had waived any provisions of the CBA. If the Court finds that “Plaintiff’s negligence claim is inextricably intertwined with and substantially dependent upon an analysis” of the CBA it was thus preempted. This finding was consistent with “numerous courts” who had earlier come to the same conclusion in other NFL cases. Therefore, the Court once again dismissed the negligence claim “with prejudice.”
In count four, Miles claimed that the NFL had waived any relevant provisions of the CBA, playing rules, or related documents. In count five, he asserted that his claims did not require interpretation of the CBA or other related documents. The Court wrote, “To the contrary, Plaintiff’s claim that the NFL waived provisions in the CBA furthermore demonstrates that the CBA governs Plaintiff’s claims.” Miles could not “plead around preemption by alleging that his claims do not require interpretation of the CBA.” The Court again concluded that counts four and five “do not support any legally cognizable cause of action and are dismissed with prejudice.” In a footnote, the Court stated that this opinion “shall not be construed to preclude Plaintiff from resolving his grievances in accordance with the CBA.”
Not only were Miles’ NFL claims dismissed with prejudice, a few months later in September 2022, Miles was also accused of sexually assaulting a woman in front of her child, which added to his legal struggles. Ironically, the amended complaint gave the Court grounds for similarly dismissing these claims with prejudice. This was so apparent to the Court that it dispensed with oral argument. Hurt and anger are not substitutes for careful legal analysis. The Court’s footnote about grievance procedures may sound good, but the time for Miles to file a grievance on any of his claims has since expired.