Legal Battles

Federal Court's Next Move in Ezekiel Elliott Case Will Be Its Biggest

After 15 months, the end of the NFL's investigation into a series of domestic violence allegations made against Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott is coming into focus. Sometime soon, as early as today and likely no later than next week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will issue a decision that will either allow Elliott to stay on the field or require him to immediately start serving the six-game suspension Roger Goodell assigned him in August.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant III upheld his Sept. 8 preliminary injunction, which banned the NFL from forcing Elliott to sit out as his case proceeds through the federal court system. As he did in his initial ruling, Mazzant blasted the league for its investigation of Tiffany Thompson's allegations against Elliott and its handling of the appeal process.

"In light of the background, the Court found that the denial of Commissioner Goodell and Thompson's testimony were gross evidentiary errors that so affected the rights of the NFL [Players Association] and Elliott, such that they were deprived of a fair hearing and it constituted misconduct by Henderson," Mazzant wrote.

With Mazzant's decision Monday, the stage is clear for the 5th Circuit, which must balance two factors: first, the likely outcome of a full trial between Elliott and the league and second, the potential harm to Elliott and the NFL caused by allowing the injunction to continue or by stopping it and requiring Elliott to begin his suspension.

The circuit court's decision will have broad implications for the future of the NFL's disciplinary system and the Cowboys' 2017 season on the field, in addition to deepening the controversy that began with Thompson's call to Columbus, Ohio, police in July 2016.

Thompson, Elliott's former girlfriend, called the cops after Elliott refused to allow her into an after-party celebrating Elliott's 21st birthday after a night of clubbing in Columbus. According to witnesses, Thompson screamed at Elliott and said she would ruin his life before telling police that Elliott had attacked her several times during the preceding week before violently pulling her out of the car in which she arrived at the party.

Police did not arrest Elliott at the scene, citing conflicting witness statements. Eventually, the Columbus City Attorney's Office elected not to pursue charges against Elliott, citing conflicting evidence and witness statements, including texts from Thompson in which she asked a friend to lie about the incident outside the party. 
While the NFL's investigation determined that Thompson did not tell truth about the incident at her car, Goodell suspended Elliott based on the other alleged incidents, citing photographs of bruises taken by Thompson. According to the league, metadata contained in the photos proves that only Elliott could've caused Thompson's injuries. Elliott's defense team claimed that Thompson's injuries could've stemmed from rough sex with Elliott, her job as a bottle service waitress or a fistfight Thompson participated in during the week.

Elliott appealed his suspension to Goodell, as required by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Before arbiter Harold Henderson, a former NFL executive, issued his decision on the case, Elliott's defense team preemptively filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, claiming that decisions made by Henderson during the appeals process, including his refusal to make Thompson or Goodell available for questioning, made the league's appeal process fundamentally biased against Elliott. Thompson's testimony, the defense said, would've been essential in order to appropriately evaluate her credibility.

"The court finds, based upon the injunction standard, that Elliott was denied a fundamentally fair hearing." – U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant III

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Mazzant later agreed that Goodell's testimony was necessary in order to determine what "credible evidence" — the standard required by the NFL's conduct policy — the commissioner relied on in order to suspend Elliott. The league's co-lead investigator in the case, Kia Roberts, said during Elliott's appeal hearing that she did not believe Elliott should've been suspended. Roberts' conclusion was not included in the league's final report of the investigation, nor was Roberts included in a meeting between Goodell and Lisa Friel, the other lead investigator in the case.
Mazzant issued a preliminary injunction Sept. 8, stopping the suspension from going into effect. Despite federal courts' reluctance to interfere in arbitration between an employer and employee that is governed by a collective bargaining agreement, Mazzant blasted the NFL.

"The question before the court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator," Mazzant wrote in his opinion. "The answer is he did not. The court finds, based upon the injunction standard, that Elliott was denied a fundamentally fair hearing by Henderson's refusal to allow Thompson and Goodell to testify at the arbitration hearing. Their absence ... effectively deprived Elliott of any chance to have a fundamentally fair hearing."

The NFL asked Mazzant to stay his injunction and have Elliott begin serving his suspension immediately. As Elliott and the league waited for Mazzant's ruling Friday — a formality, considering he'd already evaluated the league's and Elliott's claims in deciding to issue the injunction — the NFL appealed Mazzant's decision to the 5th Circuit, asking for an emergency stay and expedited appeal of Mazzant's injunction.

The league's argument against Mazzant's stay centers on the wide, almost unlimited discretion the collective bargaining agreement between players and owners gives Goodell in disciplinary matters. It points to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to reinstate New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's suspension for allegedly deflating footballs in defiance of NFL regulations after a district court vacated that suspension. Mazzant struck back at the reasoning in both of his decisions, ruling that Henderson's decision to keep Roberts and Thompson from testifying amounted to "misconduct" by the league in violation of the collective bargaining agreement, something that the lower court did not find in the Brady case.

Chad Ruback, a Dallas attorney who specializes in appellate law, says it will be an uphill climb for the NFL to convince the 5th Circuit that Elliott will not be irreparably harmed if he's suspended but eventually beats the league in court.

"This isn't just about the money" Elliott would lose if he sits out six games, Ruback says. "This is about Elliott's ability to perform competitively in a relatively short season within a relatively short career of an NFL football player. If he has a fantastic season this year, it will impact his earnings for his entire career. He is right now in the prime of his career and being deprived of a huge chunk of a season in the prime of his career is something he could never, ever get back."
Further upping the league's degree of difficulty is Mazzant's stature as a judge, Ruback says. He was appointed to a state appeals court by Texas Gov. Rick Perry before being appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama.

"Judge Mazzant is well known to be a fair judge, to be a middle-of-the-road judge. He isn't extreme in his decisions," Ruback says. "There are some judges out there who are rash, who will jump to a conclusion without looking at all the facts. Judge Mazzant is not that judge."

Assuming Elliott makes it past the 5th Circuit's stay ruling, the next legal challenge he'll face is the circuit court's final decision on the injunction appeal. While that ruling could easily come sometime in the spring, after the Super Bowl, Ruback says there's also a chance the court could rule in two or three months, during the heart of the Cowboys' schedule. The courts don't really care which games, playoffs or otherwise, Elliott might miss.

"The 5th Circuit will try to issue a decision as soon as it possibly can. I can't imagine the 5th Circuit is going to spend a lot of time trying to decide, 'Well, if we issue our decision at this time, how will it effect Mr. Elliott?'" Ruback says. "They're going to issue the decision as soon as they believe they have the right decision."

While the 5th Circuit's average time spent considering an appeal is more than eight months, the league's appeal of the injunction could finish up more quickly because it is a decision in the midst of the case, rather than at the end of the case, Ruback says.

After the 5th Circuit makes its two decisions on the injunction, the case will move back to Mazzant's courtroom in Sherman for him to make a final decision on whether to vacate Elliott's suspension, assuming both sides are still pursuing the matter. Mazzant could vacate Elliott's suspension before the 5th Circuit's second ruling, but that scenario is unlikely, Ruback says. If Elliott has already served his suspension, he'd be eligible to get paid for the games he missed but clearly couldn't get the games back. If he hasn't and the NFL eventually wins the case, either in Mazzant's court, the 5th Circuit Court or the Supreme Court, Elliott could serve his suspension in a subsequent season.