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A federal appeals court overturned a district court’s decision in the Ezekiel Elliott case Thursday, meaning the Dallas Cowboys running back’s six-game suspension has been reinstated.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of the NFL that the district court did not have subject matter jurisdiction in Elliott case after hearing oral arguments from the league and NFL Players Association lawyers earlier this month. The decision vacated the preliminary injunction and directed an order to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas to dismiss the case.
“Earlier today, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the preliminary injunction that prohibited the league from imposing the six-game suspension issued to Ezekiel Elliott for a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy,” the league wrote in a statement. “The Court also directed the district court to dismiss the union’s lawsuit which was filed on Elliott’s behalf. As a result, Elliott’s suspension will begin effective immediately. Elliott is eligible to return to the team on Friday, November 24 following the Cowboys’ Thursday, November 23 game against the Los Angeles Chargers.”
The NFLPA also issued a statement on the court’s decision: “The NFLPA is reviewing the decision and considering all options. The appellate court decision focuses on the jurisdictional issues. The failure of due process by the NFL articulated in the district court’s decision were not addressed.”
Elliott’s lawyer, Frank Salzano, released the following statement to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport regarding Thursday’s ruling:
“We are currently exploring all of our legal options and will make a decision as to what is the best course of action in the next few days. Until that time we have no further comment on the 5th circuit’s decision.”
The NFLPA is expected to re-file the case with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in order to keep Elliott playing, according to Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program. The Cowboys have a bye this week and there’s a chance Elliott might not miss a single game if the NFLPA refiles the case and is granted a TRO or preliminary injunction.
Elliott and the NFLPA have other legal options as well. They could seek an en banc hearing with the 5th Circuit or refile an amended lawsuit in Texas, according to Feldman.
“So the Players Association could ask the district court in New York or perhaps some other court to reinstate the preliminary injunction, which would put that suspension back on hold,” Feldman said on NFL Network’s TNF First Look. “So this is not over yet, particularly with the bye week, that Elliott will not serve the suspension.
“Again it’s an uphill battle but it’s possible to get that ruling in eight days,” Feldman said. “Just because they get a ruling though doesn’t mean it’s a favorable ruling, but it’s certainly in the realm of possibility.”
Unless lawyers for Elliott and NFLPA can get the suspension put on hold again, Elliott will miss games against the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers. The next game he’d be eligible to play in would be against the Redskins at home on Nov. 30.
In it’s majority decision, 5th Circuit judges Edward C. Prado and Jennifer Walker Elrod did not weigh in on the merits of the NFLPA’s case. Rather, it ruled the lower court lacked “subject matter jurisdiction” because the union filed a “premature” lawsuit before an arbitration decision was made on Elliott’s suspension.
“The procedures provided for in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA were not exhausted. … At the time the NFLPA filed the complaint, it was possible the arbitrator could have issued a final decision that was favorable to Elliott. Elliott cannot show it was futile to wait for a final decision simply because he believed the arbitrator would issue an unfavorable ruling.”
The majority found Elliott was “required to exhaust his contractual remedies” before filing a lawsuit that accused the NFL of an unfair grievance process.
“The NFLPA takes issue with the outcome and fairness of the arbitration proceedings. However, for the repudiation exception to the exhaustion requirements to apply, the NFL would have had to completely refuse to engage in the process.”
In his dissenting decision, judge James E. Graves concluded the district court “properly executed subject matter jurisdiction” and the “NFL is unable to show a likelihood of success on the merits of any irreparable injury for purposes of a stay.”
The NFL’s appeal was part of an attempt to enforce Elliott’s suspension this season and confirm NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s authority to issue punishment based on “conduct detrimental” to the league as mandated in Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement.
U.S. District Court Judge Amos Mazzant III issued the preliminary injunction last month after agreeing with the NFLPA that Elliott didn’t receive a fair suspension appeal hearing from Goodell-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson.
Goodell suspended Elliott after a year-long investigation into domestic violence accusations made by his former girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson. The league found he violated the league’s conduct policy, which mandates a six-game suspension for first-time domestic violence violations. In a letter sent to Elliott informing him of suspension in August, the NFL stated it believed he used physical force against Thompson three times over a span of five days in July 2016.
Elliott, 22, was never charged and has denied wrongdoing.
Elliott, who set a Cowboys rookie record with 1,631 rushing yards rushing last season, has 393 rushing yards and two touchdowns this season. He had a season-best 116 yards last week against the Green Bay Packers.