This month, New England Patriots fans filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts to reinstate the Patriots’ first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. In addition to the NFL, the named defendants in the lawsuit included the NFL’s commissioner and the Patriots owner, whom the plaintiffs allege chose his “fellow billionaire[s]” over fans. In Orsatti v. NFL, U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor recently rejected the petition.
The plaintiffs – seven fans – sought a restraining order that would allow the Patriots to select 29th overall in the upcoming draft. As part of the “Deflategate” punishment, the NFL eliminated the Patriots’ first-round pick this year and their fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft.
“Deflategate” is the name given to the 2015 AFC Championship Game football tampering scandal, following allegations that the Patriots deflated footballs used in the January 2015 game against the Indianapolis Colts. The NFL administered harsh punishments, reasoning that the Patriots generally and quarterback Tom Brady specifically breached the integrity of the game and failed to fully cooperate with a league investigation. The Patriots were fined $1 million, and they lost their first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft and fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft. Most notably, Brady was suspended for four games.
After the NFL commissioner upheld Brady’s suspension, the matter was moved to federal court. In September 2015, the U.S. District Court vacated the suspension due to legal defects, including providing insufficient notice to Brady, denying Brady’s opportunity to examine a primary investigator, and denying equal access to files. However, NFL lawyers have petitioned a federal appellate court to reinstate the suspension. The other sanctions, however, have remained intact.
The plaintiff fans who sued to recover the draft picks included a Connecticut season-ticket holder who alleged that the “scandal left his seven-year-old daughter disillusioned” and a Florida man who claimed the sanctions caused him anxiety and insomnia. The fans sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to restore the Patriots’ pick in time for the NFL draft, which begins April 28.
The fans alleged that the NFL’s decision to revoke the Patriots’ draft picks was “arbitrary and capricious,” especially considering that there was no proof that the team purposefully deflated footballs before the 2015 championship. The complaint alleged the NFL relied on “false premises” and biased investigations in administering the punishment. Among a long list of legal allegations, the suit alleged fraud, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
But U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor rejected these arguments, reasoning that “after reviewing the complaint, it appears highly unlikely that plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of any of their claims.” Judge Saylor therefore denied the plaintiffs an evidentiary hearing and an opposition brief. He explained that federal courts have limited resources, and it would be an illegitimate use of taxpayer resources to permit the lawsuit to move forward.
A sports law professor at the University of New Hampshire Law School agreed that the fans have little standing to sue. Paying for a ticket to watch the Patriots play, he explained, isn’t hampered by the team losing a few draft picks.
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