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STATS & ANALYSIS

Brian Flores Lawsuit: The Road Ahead

By now you know of the allegations that former Dolphins coach Brian Flores has made against the NFL and its teams. Here’s what happens next.

When the Miami Dolphins abruptly fired head coach Brian Flores several weeks ago, there was a nearly universal feeling of surprise within league circles and beyond. In the days and weeks that followed, rumors leaked out that painted Flores as someone who was difficult to deal with, which was ultimately the reason cited for his dismissal.

Many believed that Flores would immediately become one of the hottest — if not the hottest — candidate on the market for teams in need of a head coach. Regardless, interviews with the New York Giants, New Orleans Saints, and Houston Texans failed to result in a job offer.

As has been well-documented by now, Flores this week became the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL and its teams, alleging (among other things) systemic discrimination with respect to the league’s hiring practices for higher level coaches and front office positions.

While much of the media attention has been focused on the more scandalous elements of the complaint, there has been less coverage devoted to the actual legal claims, their likelihood of success, and the mechanics of how things unfold from here.

In an attempt to help make sense of the contents and the impact of the 58-page complaint, let’s start with the basics.

What Is A Class-Action Lawsuit?

Though the easy-to-consume narrative is that Flores is suing the NFL, he is merely the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit. That lawsuit could consist of black head coaches, offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, quarterback coaches, general managers, and candidates for those roles who were passed over within the applicable statute of limitations.

Unlike two-party lawsuits or even multi-party lawsuits, class-actions are suits in which any number of plaintiffs who have all ostensibly suffered the same or a similar wrong at the hands of a specific defendant will sue together for the sake of efficiency. This beats having hundreds or thousands of cases that revolve around the same issue against a single defendant.

Class-actions are common in sports and in in the NFL in particular. Take the 2011 lawsuit filed by the NFL players against the league during the most recent lockout. Or the NFL concussion lawsuit, which was referenced in the Flores complaint, and was also consolidated into a class-action that ultimately settled.

How the Case Proceeds

In order to begin to make sense of this case, it helps to break it out into three core buckets:

  • The procedural piece
  • The substantive legal clams and allegations
  • The remedies sought

Procedural

As far as the procedural piece is concerned, a plaintiff can’t simply walk into court with a class-action lawsuit and expect the court to wave its hands and allow it to proceed. Class-action litigation is complex, time-consuming, expensive, and can eat up the bandwidth of an already-taxed court system. Rather, plaintiffs need to have the court “certify” a class, which means that the plaintiff needs to prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the class meets certain criteria required for certification.

Those criteria:

  • That there are enough likely plaintiffs to make a multi-party lawsuit inadequate or unfeasible
  • That the plaintiff’s case shares the same aims as the other members of the class
  • That the named plaintiff will adequately represent the interests of the entire class
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Once Flores and his attorneys demonstrate that they have satisfied each of the above points, then the court will certify the class and allow it to proceed.

After the class is certified, class members who fit the criteria will have the choice to opt-out of the suit, which would then give them the ability to sue the NFL or its teams individually instead.

Legal Claims and Allegations

From there, assuming there are no appeals (which there are likely to be when you have multi-billion dollar defendant), the case will eventually proceed to the discovery stage, where the NFL and the class members will have to disclose certain non-public documents and information to the other side.

This will be a key inflection point. If even a fraction of Flores’s allegations prove to be true, much of what is disclosed in discovery is likely to end up on the public record, which would likely prompt the NFL to try to settle the matter before the PR nightmare spirals further out of control. A lot can happen in this stage, which is long, costly, and contentious.

Remedies

Finally, what is Flores looking to get out of all this?

First, there are the monetary damages, which come in two parts. The suit asks the court to determine a commensurate amount of money that the plaintiffs are entitled to in addition to punitive damages. As the name suggests, those are designed to punish the wrongdoer and would be in addition to any damages that the court deems appropriate to compensate for the harm done.

Then there’s something called equitable relief. In this context, it means he is asking the court to require the NFL to take specific actions to remedy systemic discrimination. That includes: “Increasing the objectivity of hiring and termination decisions for General Manager, Head Coach and Offensive and Defensive Coordinator; Incentivizing the hiring and retention of Black General Managers, Head Coaches and Offensive and Defensive Coordinators through monetary, draft and/or other compensation such as additional salary cap space positions; Increasing the influence of Black individuals in hiring and termination decisions for General Manager, Head Coach and Offensive and Defensive Coordinator positions; etc.”

What Happens Next

Given that the NFL is a $12 billion per year business, the league certainly has the means to cut a check. Reading the tea leaves here, it’s unlikely we see a jury deciding this matter because at a certain point, there will be a meaningful offer on the table and the risks of a jury trial are often more of a gamble than plaintiffs in this position are willing to take.

The one x-factor here is Flores’ resolve, which at this point is hard to question. With his impressive record as an assistant and a head coach in what was probably a toxic situation in Miami, it’s likely that Flores would have found himself with another head coaching job in the league this year or next. Instead, Flores made what could ultimately be a career-ending decision to take a stand, which one would imagine is a decision you don’t make flippantly.

If this were simply about money, you could argue that Flores stood to make a lot more by saying nothing. But if you say nothing and do nothing, nothing changes, and I guess that’s the point. It will be interesting to see which coaches decide to join him in this fight but one thing is for certain: The NFL will once again be given the opportunity to do the right thing. Let’s hope that it does.

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