The National Football League Players Association will get another chance to argue before a judge that the league instituted a secret salary cap in 2010, in violation of a contract with the union.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis on Friday reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge David S. Doty’s refusing to reopen the lawsuit and sent the case, originally filed under the name of now-deceased Hall of Fame player Reggie White, back to the judge in Minneapolis for reconsideration.
The players, seeking to in May 2012 to reopen the 1992 case, claimed they’d sustained at least $1 billion in damages, which if proved true would automatically under the collective agreement be trebled to $3 billion. NFL, the biggest U.S. sports league, had record revenue of $10 billion last season.
The union initially sued under White’s name on behalf of all current and future players, accusing the league of violating antitrust law with its labor practices. The case was closed in 1993 with an agreement that led to a new labor contract. The agreement, amended in 2006, mandated that salaries in the 2010 season wouldn’t be capped.
Months after Doty refused to hear the union’s arguments to reopen the case, New York Giants owner John Mara and other team owners publicly revealed they had employed a secret cap, according to a players association filing with the appeals court.
The players had voluntarily agreed to release claims both known and unknown and there were no grounds for reopening the White case, the league’s lawyers said in an appeals court filing.
Doty had rejected arguments to reexamine the circumstances of the 2011 dismissal in rulings issued in December 2012 and February 2013, setting the field for the players’ appeal.
"The association bears a heavy burden in attempting to convince the district court that the dismissal was fraudulently procured," a three-judge panel said. "We hold only that the association should be given the opportunity to meet this burden."
Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the 32-team New York-based NFL, said in a statement that the appellate ruling is merely procedural and that the league expected the players’ argument to fail again.
"Far from validating the union’s claim, the court specifically highlighted the heavy burden that the NFLPA faces," McCarthy said.
The NFLPA, in a statement posted on its website, said it would always protect the rights of its players and that it was pleased with today’s appeals court decision.
"Through discovery and a hearing, we can understand how collusion took place," the union said. "We have notified the NFL of its obligations to preserve all relevant documents and communications."
White died in 2004 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, two years later.