The NFL’s 2014 punishment of Adrian Peterson has been a rollercoaster ride.  After a district court vacated the punishment, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has now reinstated it.
The NFL suspended Peterson and fined him the equivalent of six games worth of pay after he entered a plea of no contest in November 2014 to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault against one of his children.  Peterson challenged the punishment under the NFL Players Association’s collective bargaining agreement, but an arbitrator initially upheld the punishment as valid.
Next, Peterson challenged the decision in federal court.  Because federal courts are generally very deferential to arbitration decisions, Peterson had a difficult legal standard to meet to vacate the decision.  However, in February of 2015, the district court agreed with Peterson and vacated the punishment on the grounds that:  (i) the punishment violated the collective bargaining agreement because it applied a new NFL personal conduct policy retroactively in violation of a previous decision regarding Ray Rice; and (ii) the arbitrator exceeded his authority by considering whether the punishment could be sustained under the NFL’s previous personal conduct policy.  The NFL then appealed the district court’s order to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals.
In National Football League Players Association v. National Football League, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court and reinstated the NFL’s punishment of Peterson as valid.  No. 15-1438 (8th Cir. August 4, 2016).  In reaching this decision, the court first reasoned that the district court’s disagreement with the arbitrator’s conclusion regarding retroactive application of the new NFL policy was not a valid basis to vacate the arbitrator’s decision.  Rather, the arbitrator’s decision needed to be upheld so long as the arbitrator was “at least arguably construing or applying the contract, including the law of the shop.”  Because the arbitrator “undoubtedly construed” the previous Ray Rice decision, the Eighth Circuit held that this requirement was satisfied and that the arbitrator’s decision on the issue should not be second-guessed by the courts.
The Eighth Circuit also disagreed that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by considering whether the discipline could be upheld under the NFL’s old personal conduct policy.  With respect to this issue, the NFL Players Association argued that the only question presented to the arbitrator was whether the NFL could retroactively apply its new policy to Peterson.  The Eighth Circuit pointed out, however, that the NFL characterized the issue more broadly as “Is the discipline appropriate?”  The NFL Players Association also raised arguments during the arbitration concerning whether the discipline was permitted under the NFL’s old policy.  As a result, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the arbitrator was at least arguably acting within the scope of his authority when he considered the previous policy, so that his decision must be upheld.
Takeaway:  The Eighth Circuit’s decision concerning Adrian Peterson is a reminder that courts are very deferential to arbitration decisions and that it is generally difficult to vacate an arbitration decision in federal court.