By: Eli Nachmany
Dallas Cowboys right tackle La’el Collins has filed suit against the National Football League (NFL), challenging part of his five-game suspension for failing to cooperate with league drug testing protocols. Various articles get into the back-and-forth between Collins and the NFL on the suspension, including Collins’s allegation that the NFL misled an independent arbitrator about Collins’s past record of suspensions and the NFL’s claim that Collins attempted to bribe a drug-testing official. This post focuses on an underlying procedural issue, removal, that has gotten less attention in the mainstream press coverage, but is quite important.
Collins originally filed in Texas state court, but the NFL removed the case to federal court (the Eastern District of Texas). The NFL was able to pull off this procedural move because the suit concerns a “federal question,” which the federal courts have jurisdiction to hear under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. To obtain so-called “federal question jurisdiction,” the case must arise “under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.”
Per 28 U.S.C. § 1441, unless another Act of Congress states otherwise, a defendant may remove a “federal question” case “to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.” For Collin County, Texas, where Collins originally filed his suit in state court, the corresponding federal court is the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
What about Collins’s suit presented a federal question? As the NFL attorneys’ Notice of Removal states, this whole dispute revolves around the federal Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). Collins is suing for a breach of a collective bargaining agreement (in particular, the NFL CBA) under Section 301 of the LMRA. The NFL argued in part that the LMRA’s preemption of state law funnels this dispute into federal question territory. To put it in terms of the jurisdictional statute: The case arises under the LMRA.
Defendants remove to federal court for all kinds of reasons. Some prefer to litigate before life-tenured judges appointed by a nationally elected president, as opposed to term-limited judges subject to election, if the issue is one for which local bias might subtly tip the scales in favor of a sympathetic, local litigant (e.g., a star right tackle on a 3-1 Cowboys team that could be playoff-bound). Often, however, the calculation is far less cynical: Many attorneys are simply just more familiar with federal procedural rules, which are uniform across the federal courts, than they are with the rules of the courts in individual states.
It remains to be seen how the NFL will fare in federal court. One perhaps not-so-good sign for the NFL is that U.S. District Court Judge Amos L. Mazzant III has been assigned to the case. Judge Mazzant III is the same judge who initially overturned the league’s suspension of Ezekiel Elliott back in 2017, before a Fifth Circuit panel vacated his ruling on appeal. Judge Mazzant III apparently mentioned Elliott multiple times in the parties’ latest hearing. A ruling is likely forthcoming soon.
Eli Nachmany is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.