Federal judge partially dismisses NFL drug misuse class action

By Kyla Asbury | Dec 19, 2014

OAKLAND, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - A federal judge partially granted a motion to dismiss in a class action lawsuit against the National Football League for allegedly supplying painkillers to players illegally.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled on two sets of motions to dismiss by the NFL based on preemption under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act; and the statute of limitations and improper pleading, according to the order filed Dec. 17 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Alsup granted the motion to dismiss under Section 301, but denied the other motion as moot.

Section 301 preempts state-law claims that are "founded directly on rights created by collective-bargaining agreements," as well as claims that are "substantially dependent on analysis of a collective-bargaining agreement."

Alsup said the essence of the plaintiffs' claim for relief is that the individual clubs mistreated their players and the league was negligent in failing to intervene and stop their alleged mistreatment.

"Plaintiffs anchor this claim for relief in supposed common law duties of each of the various states whose law would apply and vaguely suggest that all such states would impose the same uniform duty on the league to oversee the clubs," the order states.

One problem is that no decision in any state, including California, has ever held that a professional sports league owed such a duty to intervene and stop mistreatment by the league’s independent clubs, according to the order.

Alsup said in assessing the Section 301 issue, this order accepts for the sake of argument that the asserted claims for relief would be recognized under the common law of at least California.

"In sum, in deciding whether the NFL has been negligent in policing the clubs and in failing to address medical mistreatment by the clubs, it would be necessary to consider the ways in which the NFL has indeed stepped forward and required proper medical care — which here prominently included imposing specific CBA medical duties on the clubs," the order states.

Contrary to the plaintiffs' arguments, the lengths to which the NFL has gone in imposing duties on the clubs to protect the health and safety of the players cannot be ignored in evaluating whether or not it has been careless, according to the order.

The eight former NFL football players filed their class action lawsuit on May 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The defendant filed its motion to dismiss on Sept. 25.

Richard Dent, Jeremy Newbery, Roy Green, J.D. Hill, Keith Van Horne, Ron Stone, Ron Pritchard and Jim McMahon claim that rather than allowing players to rest and heal, the NFL illegally and unethically substituted pain medications for proper healthcare to keep the NFL's "tsunami of dollars flowing."

The plaintiffs, who played on different teams at different times between 1969 and 2008, claim the NFL cares more about its profits than its athletes' health.

The plaintiffs claim the NFL directly and indirectly supplied players with local anesthetic medications to mask pain and other symptoms stemming from musculoskeletal injury when the NFL knew that doing so constituted a dangerous misuse of such medications.

The NFL sanctioned and/or encouraged the misuse of narcotic pain medications in combination with NSAIDs, anesthetics and other substances such as alcohol, despite clear evidence of the potentially-fatal interactions of such combinations, according to the suit.

"In such a rough-and-tumble sport as professional football, player injuries loom as a serious and inevitable evil," the order states. "Proper care of these injuries is likewise a paramount need."

Alsup said the main point of the order is that the league has addressed these serious concerns in a serious way — by imposing duties on the clubs via collective bargaining and placing a long line of health-and-safety duties on the team owners themselves.

"These benefits may not have been perfect but they have been uniform across all clubs and not left to the vagaries of state common law," the order states. "They are backed up by the enforcement power of the union itself and the players’ right to enforce these benefits."

The plaintiffs' common law claims are preempted by Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 and the motion to dismiss all of plaintiffs’ claims based on preemption grounds under Section 301 is granted, according to the order. The NFL’s other motion to dismiss is denied as moot.

The plaintiffs have until Dec. 30 to file a motion for leave to amend their claims.

The plaintiffs are represented by: William Sinclair, Steven D. Silverman, Andrew G. Slutkin, Stephen G. Grygiel and Joseph F. Murphy Jr. of Silverman Thompson Slutkin White in Baltimore; and Thomas J. Byrne and Mel T. Owens of Namanny Byrne & Owens in Laguna Hills, Calif.

The NFL is represented by: Marla Axelrod, Daniel L. Nash and Stacey Recht Eisenstein of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld LLP in Washington, D.C.; and Jack Patrick DiCanio, Allen Ruby and Timothy Alan Miller of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom in Palo Alto, Calif.

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California case number: 3:14-cv-02324

From Legal Newsline: Kyla Asbury can be reached at classactions@legalnewsline.com.

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