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Despite possibly far-reaching legal ramifications, a recent federal court case was decided with little fanfare and may have slipped under the radar of readers of this blog and legal scholars alike. On September 3, 2015, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman overturned the suspension of someone named Tom Brady, who is apparently a quarterback for the New England Patriots of the National Football League.
But in all seriousness, the conventional wisdom is that this was a trivial issue that was completely blown out of proportion by the sports media. The case became known as “Deflategate,” a sarcastic reference to the absurdity of creating a nationwide scandal over something as silly as the amount of air in a football.
However, the case really does provide some important lessons, especially for employees. Brady appealed his suspension to an arbitrator, as required under the collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the NFL Players’ Union and the league. A court generally gives enormous deference to an arbitrator’s decision, even as in this case when the arbitrator is the same person (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell) who handed down the original suspension.
But Judge Berman’s decision shows that even if an employee is obligated to go to arbitration, he is still entitled to fundamental fairness and an impartial arbitrator. The ruling held that Brady had a right to adequate notice of the potential punishment, as well as the right to examine evidence and interrogate witnesses in order to defend himself against the charges.
The important thing to take away from this case is that the principles espoused in the ruling don’t just apply to Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Every employee subject to discipline is entitled to fair treatment by his employer, and you should contact an attorney if you believe your rights have been violated.