Late yesterday afternoon, Federal District Judge Susan Richard Nelson of the District of Minnesota granted an injunction on behalf of class of NFL players and against the National Football League blocking the league’s lockout (court opinion: http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2011/0425/judge_nelson.pdf).  Over the past day I have encountered some questions regarding injunctions.  The goal of this article is to explain the basics of injunctions and why Judge Nelson granted one in Brady, et. al. v. National Football League, et al.

What is an injunction?

An injunction is an equitable remedy.  It is an order of court that requires a party to a lawsuit to either to do, or to refrain from, certain acts.  It must be specifically requested.

What is an equitable remedy?

Most state and federal courts of general jurisdiction in the United States evolved from the English court system (the only notable exception are the courts of Louisiana, which was originally a territory of France, and, thus, are based on the French court system).  In England, two types of courts developed: (1) court of law (common law courts); and (2) court of equity.  Courts of law were based on the evolving common law and were designed to provide parties with redress for wrongs.  For example, you could sue in a common law court for monetary damages for breach of a contract.  Generally speaking, the money damages a person receives in a court of law are classified as ‘legal remedies.’  Both judges and juries can determine legal remedies.

Not every case, however, boiled down monetary damages and, as a result, you had people petitioning to the King for appropriate relief.  Edward I was overwhelmed (and annoyed) with these (often petty) petitions and, therefore, granted the Lord Chancellor jurisdiction over these matters.  Over time, this responsibility developed into a second court system within England.  The Court of the Chancery had the power to issue non-economic relief, such as injunctions, writs, and specific performance.  These forms of relief are classified as ‘equitable remedies.’  Only judges can determine equitable remedies.

In the United States, courts of law and courts of equity have merged.  Judges now have the power to grant both legal and equitable remedies.  The restriction remains, however, that only judges can grant equitable remedies.

What do you need to prove to obtain an injunction?

In our legal system, injunctions are rare and difficult to obtain.  The principles driving the development of our system favor a court system that retrospectively rights wrongs, rather than a system that prospectively prevents the wrongs from ever occurring.  Under our system of separation of powers, we must remember that the Legislature, not the Courts, is empowered with legislating behavior.  As such, Courts, who are backed by the Executive Branch (e.g., our police forces and military), are only to step-in and directly govern the behavior of individuals or groups in the most serious of circumstances.  Therefore, the test for obtaining an injunction is very exacting.

To obtain an injunction, you must prove the following:

(1) the injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm;
(2) the irreparable harm cannot be adequately compensated with money damages;
(3)  greater harm will be caused by not granting the injunction than actually granting the injunction;
(4) the injunction will not substantially harm other parties to the legal action;
(5)  the injunction will properly restore the parties to their status as it existed immediately prior to the alleged wrongful conduct;
(6) the underlying activity is actionable and the right to relief is clear (in other words, you are able to sue over the activity and you are likely to win your case);
(7) the injunction can be reasonable tailored to ensure that the offending activity will be halted; and
(8) the injunction will not adversely affect the ‘public interest.’

Why were the players granted an injunction?

There are clear laws and rules in this country governing the relationships and interactions between labor unions and employers.  In fact, the federal government setup a specialized administrative court, governed by the National Labor Relations Board, to resolve disputes arising under these laws and rules.

Initially, the players in the league were unionized.  The Union representatives were bargaining on behalf of every player in the league.  All of the players collectively bargained together and, theoretically, would have entered into the same general framework to determine the pay and benefits of each player moving forward.

At 5:00pm on March 11, however, the players filed to decertify as a union.  Essentially, the players dissolved the union and lost the ability to bargain collectively as a block.  Rather, each individual player is now free to bargain an individualized deal with his respective team.  The result, superficially, is the loss of leverage over the employer, but, given the circumstances, in reality, the result is chaos for the league.

The Supreme Court has ruled that according to federal Anti-Trust laws, each team is an individual entity.  As a result, the teams cannot work together (or collude, depending on your perspective) to control the contracts needed for the hundreds of free agents that must now be signed or the execution of the current agreements.  The teams can no longer treat the players collectively.

The lawsuit before Judge Nelson, however, accuses the league of just that: Anti-Trust violations based on the treatment of the players as a collective unit, rather than individuals.  What is the violation?  The lock-out.  Lock-outs are only permitted against labor unions.

Knowing this, why would the League still lock out the players? The League contends that the players’ decertification was a sham.  As a result, they have filed a parallel action with the Nation Labor Relations Board accusing the players of violating the relevant Labor Union laws.

Nevertheless, Judge Nelson rejected this argument and, without definitively ruling on the question of law (which will be decided later this summer), granted the injunction.  Judge Nelson accepted the players’ case which conformed with the test described above for obtaining an injunction.  You can review Judge Nelson’s ruling for her detailed discussion of each prong of the test and why the players succeeding in obtaining the injunction.

The decision is revealing, however, because, as I discussed, the players needed to prove that “the underlying activity is actionable and the right to relief is clear (in other words, you are able to sue over the activity and you are likely to win your case).”  By granting the injunction, Judge Nelson is tipping her hand and letting the League know that, based on all the evidence presented and the arguments made before her, her final ruling will most likely be in favor of the players.  In other words, she will most likely find that the League has committed a federal Anti-Trust violation.

What do you think?  Any questions about injunctions?  Leave a comment below and let me know!

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