Tuesday, June 5, 2012

As Long As the Lawyers Get Paid…

You may have noticed that the NFL has been getting peppered with lawsuits recently.  With such a litigious offseason, and being a former lawyer, I thought you might appreciate a summary of what’s going on in the NFL’s legal world right now and, later, a look at some of the many legal issues that face the league and NFL teams alike.

We’ll start today one of the most recent and interesting cases, filed by Jonathan Vilma against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Jonathan Vilma v. Roger Goodell  (filed May 17, 2012 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana)

On May 17th, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma filed a lawsuit against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for libel and slander.  Vilma is one of several Saints players (some of whom are no longer with the team) who were recently punished for their role in the New Orleans Saints “bounty” system, under which players were rewarded with cash “bounties” for injuring and/or sidelining opponents (a scandal that has been dubbed “Bountygate” by the media—how original).  Vilma received the harshest punishment among the players, with a suspension for the entire 2012 season.

Vilma (51) and the coach behind Bountygate, Gregg Williams

Vilma claims that Goodell committed libel, slander and the intentional infliction of emotional distress in the course of disciplining Vilma.  The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Louisiana, claims that public statements made concerning Vilma’s involvement in Bountygate were false.  Vilma has vehemently denied his alleged role in the team’s bounty system and has appealed his suspension.  He has also demanded that Goodell release any evidence he has that directly links him to the payment of bounties.

The implications of this suit on the NFL go well beyond this isolated case.  Before I get into that, however, allow me to give a brief law lesson…


You will hear the media refer to this case as a defamation lawsuit.  “Defamation” is an umbrella term that covers any false statements made about someone else that cause some harm to the subject of the statements.  Black’s Law Dictionary, the Webster’s of J.D.s, defines “defamation” as “[a]n intentional false communication…that injures another’s reputation or good name.”

It is important, though, to understand that Vilma’s suit specifically alleges that Goodell committed libel and slander when accusing him of being part of the bounty scandal.  “Libel” is defamation that is communicated in writing, pictures or signs.  Black’s elaborates further:  “In its most general sense, any publication that is injurious to the reputation of another.”  As you might have guessed, “slander” is the oral communication of false statements that injure another’s reputation.  Of course, an absolute defense against to charges of libel and slander is proof that the statements made about the defendant were true.

Get it?  'Cause he's a mime, and slander is spoken? Hah!

Why is it important to distinguish libel and slander from defamation?  In any correctly-written legal complaint, and Vilma’s is one, the plaintiff must set out each legal basis for the lawsuit separately.  Then, he must prove each theory to receive damages.  If one theory can’t be proven, then he may still have a case under another.  During the pretrial process, some theories might be thrown out, or dismissed, leaving others open for trial.

Vilma’s complaint claims five theories of libel:  (1) libel per se*, with injury to professional reputation; (2) libel per se, with injury to personal reputation; (3) libel per se, with accusations of criminal conduct; (4) libel by implication; and (5) libel with reckless disregard, or malice.  Since libel applies to written statements, Vilma is referring to any written statements Goodell has made to the public, such as press releases.

As for Vilma’s theories of slander, the second verse is the same as the first.  The complaint alleges:  (1) slander per se, with injury to professional reputation; (2) slander per se, with injury to personal reputation; (3) slander per se, with accusations of criminal conduct; (4) slander by implication; and (5) slander with reckless disregard, or malice.


Intentional infliction of emotional distress (or “IIED”) is a fun claim to study, just because of the various scenarios that can give rise to it.  As we go about our daily lives, we have to endure a certain amount of emotional distress, just from the sheer rudeness of others—honking, cutting in line, cursing in traffic, etc.—and we are expected to have skin of a certain thickness and deal with it.  However, IIED comes into play when the malice of another person has risen to such a level that the victim suffers significant emotional harm.

A plaintiff claiming IIED has to show:

(1)    “Extreme or outrageous” behavior that

(2)    Intentionally or recklessly caused

(3)    Severe emotional distress

A successful claim for IIED has to be about more than hurt feelings—there has to be some malice by the offender who acts beyond all reasonable bounds of decency, causing trauma to the victim.  A good example is taking someone you know to be an extreme claustrophobic and locking them in a dark closet.  It’s hard to believe that a bruising linebacker such as Jonathan Vilma can even suffer IIED at the hands of a guy in a suit, but that's not for me to judge without hearing all the facts (by the way, Vilma would need to show evidence of his emotional trauma, like therapy bills). 

To learn more about IIED, read this helpful article on FindLaw.com:  http://injury.findlaw.com/torts-and-personal-injuries/intentional-infliction-of-emotional-distress.html.


The NFL needs this case to disappear quickly, preferably with a dismissal.  Why?  Well, the longer the case survives, the greater chances that the judge will order discovery, which would certainly include compelling Goodell to provide the evidence obtained by the league indicating that Jonathan Vilma was directly involved in the bounty system.  The reason this is undesirable for the league is that they would likely need to identify the sources of their information, the identities of which have been confidential to this point.  A release of this information would send a chill through the league, discouraging cooperation by players and team personnel in similar investigations in the future.

The league is also concerned with the precedent of such a suit being given credibility by the courts.  To begin with, the NFL will want the courts to recognize that their involvement in such matters is preempted by the collective bargaining agreement, which gives the NFL commissioner ultimate authority in meting out punishment to offenders of league rules.  If the court decides to hear the case, that decision could undermine the commissioner’s authority.

Of course, an alternative to trial is an out-of-court settlement.  However, this prospect yields its own dangers.  If the NFL and Goodell agree to compensate Vilma in any capacity, even a reduction in his suspension, you’re likely to see copycat lawsuits by punished players in the future. 

UPDATE:  On July 2, 2012, Vilma filed a second lawsuit in federal court alleging that Goodell had not made a timely decision on Vilma's appeal of his season-long suspension resulting from the bounty scandal.  The basis for the suit was that, according to Vilma, the collective bargaining agreement required Goodell to make a ruling as soon as practicable after the appeal hearing, which took place on June 18th.  According to this new complaint, since the other players involved in the case presented no new evidence at that hearing in protest, Goodell should have made his decision by June 25th, the first business day after the record in the case was closed.  However, Goodell rendered the lawsuit moot by issuing his ruling the very next day and upholding the suspension of Vilma and other punishments meted out to other players involved in the scandal.

*An action is libelous (or slanderous) “per se” if the statements are such that the plaintiff doesn’t need to prove the damages caused by their impact.  A good example is a statement that accuses someone of committing a crime.  Contrast this to a statement that is “libelous per quod,” which might not usually be damaging, but has a damaging effect because of the circumstances or context in which it was made. 

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