On November 21, 2022, the District Court of New Jersey granted the NFL’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit originally filed in 2019 by former New York Jets’ defensive back and special teamer, Rontez Miles.
According to his complaint, Miles (“Plaintiff”) suffers from an autoimmune disorder called alopecia areata. Such a condition, he claims, causes him to “experience ocular photosensitivity and photophobia and limits his ability to see well in sunlight or artificial light.” With that, for at least three seasons, Plaintiff played with a protective shield on his facemask that helped him navigate the field. That came to a halt, starting in a 2017 preseason game when an NFL equipment judge told Miles that he was not permitted to play with the shield.
Miles played the game against the Detroit Lions without his protective shield — and promptly suffered a broken orbital bone of the right eye.
In his complaint filed 2 years after the injury, Plaintiff alleged that, “due to the lack of protection from the stadium lights, [he] did not see an opposing player approach, and hence, was unable to take defensive maneuvers.” His causes of action included:
Count 1: Violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”);
Count 2: Violation of Section 12101 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for failure to provide reasonable accommodation to Plaintiff; and
Count 3: Negligence
Here is where labor law encroaches on Plaintiff’s (as with so many other parties governed by a CBA) federal law claims: §301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), a provision readily accessible in the proverbial holster of the league. §301 of the LMRA preempts claims based in state law brought by union-represented employees. Miles falls squarely in that category, as he was represented by the NFLPA during the underlying cause of action.
The NFL claims that Miles’s claims are preempted by Section 301 because “the allegations are inextricably intertwined with the CBA and incorporated Official Playing Rules.” Miles — like the Broncos’ Aaron Patrick — seeks to skirt the CBA. Plaintiff argued that the NFL waived application of the CBA after the league allowed him to play for at least 3 seasons utilizing a protective shield without specific approval. Therefore, Plaintiff argues, his claims do not require the court to interpret the CBA, an action that the court is preempted from doing.
Collective bargaining agreements make labor law the unrivaled king in sports law.
The NFL argued that the court would need to analyze the CBA and its playing rules to “determine whether the NFL had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its alleged refusal to permit Plaintiff to wear the shield.” Miles argued in response that the CBA had no bearing on his claims.
The court was not convinced, as it ruled in favor of the NFL on Monday, dismissing Miles’s lawsuit.
The court reasoned that “[t]he CBA governs the respective rights and responsibilities of the NFL, the Clubs, the NFLPA, and the players with respect to, among other subjects, player health and safety, player attire and equipment, and the remedies and benefits available to players in the event of an injury sustained while performing services under an NFL Player Contract, including during the course of an NFL game.”
With respect to Plaintiff’s claims arising under the ADA, the court held that Miles failed to first file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an administrative requirement. Thus, this claim was dismissed as well.
Time and time again, we are reminded of the power the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement holds. Miles will have to seek a remedy within the CBA, not state law. Rontez Miles last played in the NFL in 2019 (the same year he filed this lawsuit) and ended up playing in 13 games that 2017 season. All 6 of his professional years playing football were for the New York Jets, who are making headlines for some other (Zach Wilson) reason today.
Jason Morrin is a law clerk (pending admission to the NY Bar) at Zumpano, Patricios & Popok LLP in New York, a firm dedicated to litigation and business counseling including in the areas of sports, gaming and entertainment. He graduated cum laude from Hofstra Law School where he was president of the Sports and Entertainment Law Society. His reporting for Conduct Detrimental has been cited by ESPN, The New York Post, USA Today, and more.