If two people claim you owe them money for providing the same service, sometimes it’s best not to pay either. At least, that’s one lesson from a federal court ruling that came down in favor of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III.
On Sept. 9, U.S. District Judge Stephen Clark granted summary judgment against NFL agent Ben Dogra in his lawsuit over Griffin’s refusal to pay marketing commissions allegedly worth about $659,000. The 30-year-old backup to Lamar Jackson prevailed mainly because Dogra and his former employer, CAA, spent years arguing over who was entitled to Griffin’s commissions.
As they argued, the clock on suing Griffin essentially ran out.
The key facts began in January 2012, when Griffin, a star at Baylor, declared for the NFL draft. He chose Dogra, who was co-head of football at CAA, as his agent. Griffin also entered into a marketing agreement with CAA, though the agreement wasn’t put in writing. They instead reached an oral understanding about its terms—most crucially, that Griffin would pay CAA a 15% commission on marketing and endorsement deals and that the relationship was terminable at will by either party.
The lack of written agreement for a marketing agreement, one prominent NFL agent tells Sportico on the condition of anonymity, is not uncommon. “It depends,” the agent says, “on a lot of factors in the relationship, including whether the player wants to sign something…. You have to read the room and sense what is the best approach.”
The agent acknowledges that a handshake-approach carries risk should the player-agent relationship break down. “It’s like when you go through a divorce and wish you had a prenup in writing,” the agent said.
Griffin’s NFL career didn’t take off as expected. After Washington selected him with the second overall pick, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner was beset by injuries and inconsistency. Yet, for a while, Griffin was highly marketable. In 2012, he signed endorsement deals with Adidas, Subway, Electronic Arts and Castrol Oil. Griffin paid CAA approximately $960,000 in marketing commissions for 2012 and 2013.
In 2014, CAA fired Dogra. Griffin, in turn, fired CAA. Dogra would continue to represent Griffin.
In December 2014, both CAA and Dogra sent Griffin invoices for approximately $377,000 in marketing commissions. Griffin took no action. Six months later, CAA demanded an additional $221,000. Griffin didn’t pay that invoice, either.
Griffin’s unwillingness to pay reflected advice shared by Dogra. Sportico has obtained a transcript of Dogra’s deposition. “So, I said,” Dogra recalls telling Griffin, “you’ve got the use of the money. I said, don’t pay me. CAA won’t put it in escrow. I said don’t pay them unless you want to cause they’re not going to sue you.”
While Griffin held onto his money, Dogra and CAA spent more than three years battling in arbitration over who was entitled to commissions. Court records indicate there were five arbitration awards (rulings) or opinions covering a timeline that began in February 2015 and ended in August 2018. Dogra ultimately prevailed with respect to Griffin: The arbitrator determined that he had the right to the commissions. However, it took until February 2019 before Dogra and CAA could determine how to approach collecting commissions and their value.
Judge Clark writes that both during and after the arbitration proceedings, various players—including Griffin—experienced “a muddled series of communications” with Dogra and CAA, in which they were left uncertain as to whom they should pay. Dogra and CAA, Judge Clark explains, would only “add to the confusion” by “providing conflicting directives to Griffin.”
Griffin was also advised by Mark Heligman, a marketing agent who worked with Dogra and who still represents Griffin today. In a November 2015 text, Heligman told Griffin, “But let’s hold off on you paying anything until after our case [with CAA] is settled so you don’t have anything to worry about . . . Cool?”
Griffin responded, “Cool by me brother.”
By late 2018, Griffin had fired Dogra. He also communicated to both Dogra and CAA that he “did not owe marketing commissions for 2014, 2015 or 2016.” Per the terms of the oral contract, Griffin terminated it in 2014—a move that Griffin maintains extinguished obligations.
Dogra and CAA treated the possibility of filing of a lawsuit against Griffin, Judge Clark writes, “like a hot potato.” Neither wanted to sue him. “It’s a bad idea,” Dogra testified, “to sue your client, who is no longer your client.”
In February 2019, attorneys representing Dogra communicated to CAA’s attorneys that the agent wished for the agency to sue Griffin and that, per their arbitration, CAA was obligated to do so. CAA flatly disagreed.
A month later, Dogra sued Griffin for breach of contract, arguing he is owed commissions for 2014, 2015 and 2016. Dogra maintained that although Griffin fired him, “this termination did not eliminate [Griffin’s] obligation to pay the required fees.”
Under the applicable statute of limitations, Dogra had two years from when he was owed commissions to file a lawsuit. Judge Clark stressed that the clock began to run “at the time payment is due.” Dogra testified that payment is due the same year of the commission. From that lens, the latest Dogra could sue for 2014 fees was 2016, the latest he could sue for 2015 fees was 2017 and so on.
Dogra tried, unsuccessfully, to argue that this approach was flawed. He insisted that clock on the statute of limitations should have started as late as 2017, once CAA knew that Griffin “intended not to pay.” Judge Clark regarded this line of reasoning as beside the point. He stressed the relevant legal question was whether payment had occurred—not whether Griffin intended to pay.
An agent familiar with the litigation questions why Dogra, who during the deposition boasted of his bank account and opined that $650,000 wasn’t “enough money to change my life,” would wage five years of arbitration and litigation—and possibly incur sizable attorneys’ fees—in pursuit of six-figure commissions.
“Seems like an awful lot of trouble and expense,” the agent opines. “Hard to see how this economically makes sense for [Dogra].”
While under oath, Dogra insisted it was a matter of principle. “[Griffin’s] not allowed to make millions of dollars and not pay fees, so somebody has to get it.”
Dogra won’t be that “somebody”—for now, at least. He can appeal the ruling.