Next week, the Dallas Cowboys may finally get some clarity on star running back Ezekiel Elliott's status for the rest of the season, following a critical hearing before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. After oral arguments on Monday, the court will decide whether or not to issue an emergency stay of a lower-court injunction that has allowed Elliott to play in at least the first four games of the Cowboys season. If the circuit court stays the lower-court's ruling, Elliott could begin serving his suspension with the Cowboys' October 8 game in Arlington against the Green Bay Packers.
Since August, Elliott's playing status has been in limbo, following NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's decision to suspend Elliott for six games because of domestic violence allegations made by Elliott's ex-girlfriend in July 2016.
Elliott appealed Goodell's decision and sued the league on Sept. 1, following a three-day league appeal hearing that ended with arbiter Harold Henderson rubber-stamping Goodell's decision. On Sept. 8, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant III issued a preliminary injunction, stopping the NFL from enforcing the suspension for the duration of Elliott's legal battle against the league.
Mazzant's decision was based largely on two factors. First, he ruled that Elliott was likely to prevail on the merits, eventually seeing his suspension vacated in court, because of the process by which the league investigated and suspended Elliott. The league, according to Mazzant, ignored crucial findings made by the NFL's co-lead investigator, Kia Roberts, and inappropriately kept Goodell and Elliott's accuser, Tiffany Thompson, from testifying at the appeals hearing. Second, Mazzant elected to grant Elliott the injunction because if he didn't, and Elliott served the suspension, there is no way for Elliott to get those games back.
The NFL appealed Mazzant's decision to the 5th Circuit, asking them to stay the injunction, which would force Elliott to begin serving the suspension immediately. The league claims that if the stay is not granted, the NFL will suffer irreparable harm to its ability to discipline players. Chad Ruback, a Dallas attorney who specializes in appellate law, told the Observer earlier this month that the league faced an uphill challenge proving to the 5th Circuit that its potential harm outweighed the potential harm to Elliott.
"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."
Generally, circuit courts issue rulings on request for emergency stays after being briefed in writing by both parties. In this case, the 5th Circuit elected to schedule oral arguments for October 2. Rather than the meat of Mazzant's ruling, the 5th Circuit appears concerned with whether or not Mazzant's Sherman U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over Elliott's appeal, given that it was filed before Henderson issued his ruling on Elliott's appeal.
The NFL Players Association, on Elliott's behalf, argues that because the procedural violations that Mazzant ruled unfair took place before they filed their suit, Mazzant's court had appropriate jurisdiction. The league's argument, essentially, boils down to the fact that Elliott's lawsuit was filed before Henderson issued his decision on the appeal. If plaintiffs can act prior to the end of arbitration, there is nothing to stop parties from filing placeholder lawsuits in favorable jurisdictions, the league argues. Mazzant, according to the league, overstepped his bounds in considering the appeals process at all. Ruback says doing so is something that would be out of character for the district judge, who was appointed to the state bench by Rick Perry and to his current job by President Barack Obama.
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"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."
If the 5th Circuit overturns Mazzant for reasons other than the jurisdictional challenge, Elliott will begin serving his suspension immediately. If it upholds the injunction, Elliott will remain on the field, likely for the duration of the 2017 season, as the case plays out between Sherman and New Orleans. If the 5th Circuit stays the injunction because it believes Mazzant's court lacked jurisdiction over the lawsuit, it will likely dismiss Elliott's suit entirely.
The suit being dismissed, however, would not necessarily mean that Elliott would not take the field against the Packers. If Elliott's Texas suit is dismissed, arguments between the league and the NFLPA over the fairness of Elliott's appeal will move to the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, the venue in which the league filed a competing lawsuit after Henderson's decision.
While the Manhattan court is the league's preferred venue, it did issue a preliminary injunction in 2015 that allowed Tom Brady to play out that season as he fought a four-game suspension stemming from his allegedly participating in deflating footballs prior to the previous season's AFC Championship Game. Brady's suspension was eventually upheld by the 2nd U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals and the Patriots quarterback missed the first four games of the 2016 season.