Former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden scored an important pretrial win in his interference and negligence lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday when a trial judge denied the league’s motion to dismiss.
The ruling means Gruden’s attorneys will be able to use pretrial discovery, including the taking of sworn testimony and disclosure of sensitive emails, unless the league and Gruden reach a settlement. It also suggests the NFL’s arbitration defense might not be as persuasive as the league believes, a significant point given its relevance to a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores.
The ruling, as reported by the Las Vegas Review Journal, came during a hearing before Clark County District Court Judge Nancy Allf. She stated she was “concerned with the commissioner having the sole power to determine any employee disputes.” Language in the NFL’s constitution and coaches’ contracts indicates that disputes concerning a coach’s employment must go to league arbitration—overseen by Goodell—before a court can decide.
To be clear, Allf’s ruling does not mean Gruden’s lawsuit would succeed in a trial. The former Raiders coach believes that Goodell, whom he ridiculed in emails while an ESPN employee in 2011, is responsible for leaks of Gruden’s emails to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Those 2011 emails, sent to then-Washington president Bruce Allen, contained derogatory remarks that sparked a media controversy. The controversy led to Gruden resigning in disgrace last October and walking away from about $60 million left on his contract.
The NFL flatly denies Gruden’s central thesis—that Goodell leaked emails in retaliation—and stresses that Gruden doesn’t refer to any tangible evidence of this supposed plot. However, with pretrial discovery, it’s possible Gruden will be able to obtain evidence through sworn testimony or documents that support his assertion. The NFL intends to appeal Judge Allf’s ruling.
Although the Gruden case is being heard in a different court (a Nevada state court) and concerns a different set of issues, the failure of the NFL to get the case dismissed to arbitration could be a hopeful sign for Flores. Like in Gruden’s case, the NFL has argued in the Southern District of New York that Flores’ case is preempted by arbitration. If that argument fails, Flores and his legal team would be one step closer to pretrial discovery on a very sensitive topic for the league: the role of race in hiring.