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NHL Brings Lawsuit Against NHLPA: Legal Chaos Likely to Ensue

December 19th, 2012 at 1:38 PM
By Matthew Heimlich

On Monday, the NHL filed a lawsuit against the players and NHLPA in a New York federal court.  In their suit, they seek a number of declarations from the court, essentially ruling that the lockout is legal, that the NHL is immune from anti-trust actions stemming from the lockout, and that all existing players contracts are void if the lockout is determined to be invalid.

The players have hinted at decertifying their union for months, referring to it as a last resort option if negotiations continue to go nowhere.  The players believe that by decertifying, they would remove the protections afforded the NHL through American labor laws, discussed in a prior post.  The theory is that this would open up the league to anti-trust lawsuits, and thus pressure them into settling with the players.

The NHL decided to take proactive action and file their lawsuit in New York, likely to secure a more favorable venue for themselves.  Their main argument relies on a piece of legislation called the Norris-Laguardia Act.  The NHL will argue that although the players' association technically decertified, any claims against the NHL would stem from the same labor dispute as when the union existed, and that federal courts are prohibited from enjoining lockouts in the middle of labor disputes.  This now puts the players on the defensive and requires them to show that any anti-trust actions filed against the league are separate and distinct from the CBA negotiations.  However, if the players' prevail, the league could open themselves up to hundreds of millions of dollars of exposure.

In this case, the judge may conclude that the decertification does not represent a real breakup of the union and players.  Disclaimers of interest generally occur when the union members grow tired of their leadership and use decertification to effectively fire their control group.  In this case, players are essentially voting on whether to decertify, clearly indicating that they are simply using decertification as a negotiating tool to obtain a settlement  with the league.  

If the NHL were to have their declarations approved, then the players would be bargaining from a weaker position than before.  There are other avenues that could be pursued by the players after that (sue under Canadian labor law, etc.), but a positive ruling for the NHL would certainly take the legs out from underneath the players.  Both sides have a lot at stake in the litigation, and there is little certainty regarding how the court will rule on the NHL's suit.  

The judge presiding over this matter is 51 year-old Judge Paul A. Englemayer, who has been on the bench for a little more than a year.  He is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law, and previously clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Tags: Law, NHL, NHLPA, Sports, Sports Law

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