Federal judge Amos Mazzant of the Eastern District of Texas on Friday granted Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott his motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the NFL’s six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
Elliott, who rushed for 1,631 yards as a rookie to help the Cowboys to the best record in the NFC at 13-3, had already been allowed to play in Sunday’s season opener against the New York Giants.
Now he will probably be on the field for the rest of the season as the case heads to a possible long court battle between Elliott’s lawyers from the NFL Players Association and the NFL.
It’s a long-shot scenario that the Cowboys prepared for and which seemingly has paid off. Elliott was a full practice participant throughout training camp, though he played in just one preseason game.
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There is no timeline on when Mazzant will move the case to trial. The league had filed a motion to dismiss the petition and also filed requests with the Southern District of New York to confirm and enforce the arbitration ruling and for the case to be heard in New York instead of Texas.
The NFL is currently weighing its options and could pursue relief in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to a source.
“We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner’s decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout,” a league spokesman said in a statement. “We will review the decision in greater detail and discuss next steps with counsel, both in the district court and federal court of appeals.”
Mazzant agreed with Elliott’s lawyers that the 2016 NFL leading rusher didn’t receive a “fundamentally fair” hearing in his appeal heard by NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson last week because his accuser was not allowed to testify nor was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who decided on the discipline.
Henderson affirmed the league’s decision on Tuesday.
Elliott was originally suspended by Goodell on Aug. 11 following a year-long investigation into domestic violence allegations of former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson.
Elliott denied the accusations.
Prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio, didn’t pursue the case, citing inconsistent and conflicting evidence.
The NFL, however, said it found evidence of Elliott abusing Thompson on three different instances, based on photos, metadata and witness testimony — even though NFL lead investigator Kia Roberts didn’t find Thompson credible and didn’t think there was enough evidence to warrant a suspension
In making his ruling, Mazzant stated “that the question of what happened between Elliott and Thompson in July 2016 is not before the Court.”
“The question before the Court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator,” Mazzant wrote. “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.”
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The NFLPA, which accused the league of conspiring to withhold and suppress evidence, responded with a hard rebuke of the commissioner and the league.
“Commissioner discipline will continue to be a distraction from our game for one reason: because NFL owners have refused to collectively bargain a fair and transparent process that exists in other sports,” read a statement issued by the NFLPA. “This ‘imposed’ system remains problematic for players and the game, but as the honest and honorable testimony of a few NFL employees recently revealed, it also demonstrates the continued lack of integrity within their own League office.”
In upholding the suspension on Tuesday, Henderson wrote Goodell rightfully acted within his “broad discretion” under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and followed the process step by step. He said it was his place to second-guess the commissioner.
The union challenged the process the NFL undertook to suspend Elliott and alleged that Henderson’s appeals process “deprived the union and Elliott of fundamental fairness,” which Mazzant agreed with.
While the NFL lost this battle, Elliott could still end up being suspended next season. If Elliott loses in court, he will likely serve the suspension for the first six games of the 2018 season.
The courts have consistently sided with the NFL when it comes to these types of cases, mostly recently last year when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed Goodell’s four-game suspension of New England quarterback Tom Brady in the “Deflategate” case.
It confirmed the broad power of Goodell under the CBA and the courts’ deference to arbitration rulings.
That case will be used by the NFL as it continues this with Elliott and the NFLPA in court.
Mazzant acknowledges the cases are similar, but he also saw differences in regards to the denial of evidence and witnesses he couldn’t ignore.
During the appeals process, the NFLPA was denied access to investigators’ notes; to cross-examine Thompson; and to question Goodell.
Mazzant said that “unlike in the Brady case, the evidence and testimony precluded is material, pertinent, and critically important.”
“This case involves essential evidence that was sought and denied resulting in a fundamentally unfair hearing,” Mazzant said in his decision Friday. “Fundamental unfairness is present throughout the entire arbitration process. Due to such fundamental unfairness, the Court’s intervention is justified. The NFLPA was not given the opportunity to discharge its burden to show that Goodell’s decision was arbitrary and capricious. At every turn, Elliott and the NFLPA were denied the evidence or witnesses needed to meet their burden. Fundamental unfairness infected this case from the beginning, eventually killing any possibility that justice would be served.”
The question now is whether Mazzant will have the same opinion after hearing the case in a full trial and whether that decision will hold as the NFL takes it as far up the chain as possible.
The Cowboys had no official comment after the decision.
Team executive vice president Stephen Jones said earlier that the team was excited to have Elliott for the opener and would approach the rest of the season one day at a time.
“I think it’s a huge, huge asset,” Jones said. “Zeke was one of the best players in the league last year if not the best. To have him to play a division foe the first week on opening night is a big deal. We will certainly take it. We are taking it one day at a time. We are worrying about the Giants right now. When that game is over we will worry about what’s next.”