In this Aug. 8, 2014, file photo, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson leaves the field after an NFL preseason football game against the Oakland Raiders in Minneapolis. A federal judge has cleared the way for Peterson to be reinstated. U.S. District Judge David Doty issued his order Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, less than three weeks after hearing oral arguments. AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
A federal judge has opened the door for faster reinstatement of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, ruling an NFL arbitrator “failed to meet his duty” in a child abuse case that brought national backlash for the league and widened its rift with the players’ union.
This was the second high-profile defeat in the last six months for Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL, thatcase concerning punishment for former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge David Doty overruled NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson’s December denial of Peterson’s appeal. Doty said the league cannot retroactively apply the standards of its new, tougher personal conduct policy to an action by Peterson that occurred before the policy was in place.
The league suspended Peterson through at least April 15 under the new standard, which arose from the furor over the handling of the assault involving Rice. But Doty said in his 16-page ruling that Henderson “simply disregarded the law of the shop and in doing so failed to meet his duty” under the collective bargaining agreement.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement Doty’s decision was a “victory for the rule of law, due process and fairness.” The NFL said it will review the decision.
In the Rice case, Goodell changed a two-game ban to an indefinite suspension. But the arbitrator in Rice’s appeal, former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones, ruled that decision was “arbitrary” and an “abuse of discretion.” Rice was seen on surveillance video knocking out the woman who’s now his wife with a punch in an elevator.
The NFL argued that the ruling by Jones was irrelevant to the Peterson case, but Doty disagreed.
“The court finds no valid basis to distinguish this case from the Rice matter,” he said.
The injuries to Peterson’s son, delivered by a wooden switch that Peterson was using for discipline, occurred in May. Goodell’s announcement of the enhanced policy came in August.
The NFLPA argued the league could not retroactively apply the new policy, which increased a suspension for players involved with domestic violence from two games to six games.
“Our collective bargaining agreement has rules for implementation of the personal conduct policy and when those rules are violated, our union always stands up to protect our players’ rights,” Smith said. “This is yet another example why neutral arbitration is good for our players, good for the owners and good for our game.”
Peterson is under contract with the Vikings through 2017, carrying a $15.4 million salary cap hit for 2015, and several high-ranking Vikings officials have said definitively they want him to return. General manager Rick Spielman said last week he expects Peterson to be back.
But Peterson has expressed some uneasiness, telling ESPN in a recent interview he felt betrayed by the organization during the process of Goodell placing him on paid leave while the child-abuse case played out in court in Texas.
The market opens with the new league year March 10, at which time the Vikings could trade Peterson if they so decide. If they cut him, they’d owe him no more money and take only a $2.4 million hit to their salary cap.
Doty said Henderson erred in purporting to rely on factual differences in the cases of Rice and Peterson yet failing to “explain why the well-recognized bar against retroactivity did not apply to Peterson.” The Rice decision aside, Doty said, Goodell should have understood his duty to only apply the new policy moving forward.
The league appeared to be left with these options:
—Appeal the ruling to a higher court, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the process of seeking a ruling there could take months.
—Send Peterson’s appeal back to an arbitrator to hear under terms of the old personal conduct policy, which generally triggered a two-game suspension for a first offense rather than the six games Peterson effectively received. He was placed on paid leave in September while the child abuse case played out in Texas, and Goodell issued the punishment in November.
—Simply reinstate Peterson and save the hassle.
Doty’s courtroom has long been a ground zero of sorts for NFL labor matters, and his ruling pattern has favored the union more often than not.
Still, his latest rebuke of the NFL came as a surprise because it defied a collectively bargained arbitration process.
“There’s no doubt that generally speaking judges don’t like to overturn decisions of arbitrators,” said Thomas Wassel, a labor and employment attorney and partner at Cullen and Dykman in New York. “That’s a general principle in all of labor law. … Unless the court ruled the arbitrator clearly exceeded his authority legally or was biased in some way, even if the judge disagrees with the decision, they’re not supposed to overrule the arbitrator.”