Will Roger Goodell’s Motion To Dismiss Jonathan Vilma’s Lawsuit Be Granted?

In May, suspended New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma sued NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation as a result of statement made by Goodell in the course of the NFL’s investigation into the Saints’ alleged bounty program.  In Louisiana, defamation is “the malicious publication or expression … of anything which tends to expose any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to deprive him of the benefit of public confidence or social intercourse.  On July 5, 2012, Goodell filed a motion to dismiss Vilma’s defamation lawsuit.  Goodell’s motion argues that Vilma’s lawsuit should be dismissed under Rule 12 (B) (6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or alternatively under Louisiana’s Anti-SLAPP statute.

Rule 12 (B) (6) Arguments

Under Rule 12 (B) (6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint may be dismissed if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.  Under Rule 12 (B) (6), a judge considers the facts alleged in the original complaint to be true.  If the facts alleged within the original complaint do not include the grounds upon which a plaintiff is entitled to relief, but rather, merely state the elements of the laws the plaintiff alleges were violated, then the complaint can be dismissed under Rule 12 (B) (6).

In raising his 12 (B) (6) motion to dismiss, Goodell makes two arguments:  1.  That Vilma’s claims are preempted by Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act and 2. Vilma only plead conclusory allegations on required elements.

First, Goodell argues that Vilma’s defamation lawsuit constitutes a state-law claim which requires interpretation of the NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement.  As such, Goodell asserts that Vilma’s lawsuit is preempted by Section 301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act.  Goodell argues that the lawsuit requires the interpretation of the CBA, because the CBA governs the terms and conditions of Vilma’s employment as an NFL player.  Included in the terms and conditions set forth under the CBA, is that Vilma could be suspended for conduct that Goodell as commissioner finds to be detrimental to the NFL or football as a sport.  Goodell’s motion asserts that the statements made by him which Vilma alleges were defamatory and the actions allegedly taken by him which caused Vilma emotional distress, were made during the course of an investigation and suspension brought forth by Goodell under the power granted to him under the CBA as NFL commissioner.  Given that Goodell argues that the allegedly defamatory statements made by him were made under this context, he claims that evaluation of Vilma’s defamation lawsuit necessarily involves interpretation of the NFL-NFLPA CBA.

Additionally, because Goodell argues that the CBA contains a “no-suit” provision which prevents players and the NFLPA from suing the NFL and its teams, Goodell argues that the lawsuit must be dismissed pursuant to Section 301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act.  Goodell’s motion asserts that “The law is completely clear that employees may not resort to state tort. . . claims in substitution for their rights under the grievance procedure in a collective bargaining agreement.”  Goodell’s motion notes that the CBA allows for binding dispute resolution procedures, rather than lawsuits, to be brought by the NFL or NFLPA and players when a dispute arises.  As such, Goodell asserts that Vilma’s lawsuit is improperly brought.

In his second argument in favor of Vilma’s lawsuit being dismissed under Rule 12 (B) (6), Goodell argues that Vilma failed to plead more than conclusory allegations on required elements.  First, Goodell notes that because Vilma is a public figure, he was required to plead the additional element of “actual malice” under his defamation claim.  For public figures to allege a cause of action for defamation, they must allege that the defendant made the statements with actual malice.  According to Goodell, in his complaint, Vilma only alleged that “Goodell’s Statements were made with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity and/or with malice.”  According to Goodell, Vilma did not allege how Goodell’s actions constituted actual malice.  As such, Goodell argues that the defamation claim must be dismissed due to Vilma’s failure to plead the claim with specificity.  Similarly, with respect to the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim alleged by Vilma, Goodell asserts Vilma was required to state the claim with particularity.  Here, Goodell alleges that Vilma merely alleged that Goodell’s conduct with respect to the statements made by him during the course of the bounty investigation were “extreme and outrageous.”  Goodell alleges that this allegation did not meet the specificity requirements to state a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Anti-SLAPP Statute Arguments

Anti-SLAPP statutes exist to prevent plaintiffs from filing strategic lawsuits against public participation (“SLAPP” lawsuits).  Louisiana’s anti-SLAPP statute allows a defendant to file a motion to strike lawsuits “arising from any act of [the defendant] in furtherance of the [defendant's] right of petition or free speech under the United States or Louisiana Constitution in connection with a public issue.”  The defendant can bring this motion to strike the lawsuit so long as the plaintiff has not established a probability of success on the claim.

The benefit to filing an anti-SLAPP lawsuit in Louisiana, is that upon the filing of the motion, a stay of discovery is granted.  This is crucial here, as in this case, Vilma and the NFLPA have continuously asserted that the NFL has withheld evidence of its findings related to the bounty program from them.  Arguably, Vilma initially filed his lawsuit to engage in the legal discovery process, whereby he would gain access to at least some of the NFL’s evidence.  By filing the anti-SLAPP lawsuit, the NFL at least temporarily held off Vilma and the NFLPA from accessing its evidence.

Upon the filing of the anti-SLAPP lawsuit, Goodell faces the burden of showing that Vilma’s claims arise from an act in furtherance of the exercise of his right of free speech in connection with a public issue.  As such, Goodell will have to show that the bounty program was a public issue.  Given the vast popularity of the NFL and the recent widespread concern over concussions and other injuries sustained by NFL players, this arguably will not be a hard burden for Goodell to meet.

If Goodell meets the burden of proving that the bounty program was a public issue, Vilma must demonstrate the probability of success on the merits of his claim.  If Vilma failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, based upon the Rule 12 (B) (6) analysis above, then this may be an issue.  However, if a judge finds that Vilma’s claims do not fall under the NFL-NFLPA CBA, or that Vilma failed to plead his claims with specificity, then Vilma will be able to demonstrate the probability of success of his claim on the merits.  This would mean that Vilma’s lawsuit would not be dismissed under the anti-SLAPP lawsuit.

Will the motion to dismiss be granted?

Overall, Goodell’s motion raises solid legal arguments.  Arguably, the simplest arguments raised by Goodell–that Vilma failed to plead his claims with specificity–may be his strongest.  In reviewing Vilma’s lawsuit, it does not appear that he specifically raised allegations of actual malice–as is required of public figures–in his defamation claim.  On top of the simple specificity argument raised by the motion, Vilma’s legal team may face hurdles in arguing against the notion that this case does not involve the interpretation of the CBA or that this matter is not one of public interest.

However, remember that the lawsuit is being held in Vilma’s home court, as it was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  Given that the New Orleans Saints have largely helped in the reemergence of New Orleans’ economy since Hurricane Katrina hit, there is the possibility that the court will grant Vilma some judicial leniency.  As such, the possibility exists that Goodell’s motion to dismiss will be denied.  However, unless Vilma’s legal team can overcome the deficiencies outlined above, it is my guess that the motion to dismiss will be granted.

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Filed under Civil Lawsuits, NFL, NFLPA

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