NEW YORK -- A judge on Thursday made it likely that she'll rule in weeks rather than months whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gets to decide the merits of racial discrimination claims made by Black coaches against the league and its teams, saying an effort to gather more evidence seems like "an impermissible fishing expedition.''
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni said in a written ruling that lawyers for coaches Brian Flores, Steve Wilks and Ray Horton may not gather additional evidence from defendants to support their arguments that the lawsuit in Manhattan federal court should remain in court rather than be sent to arbitration.
"Because Plaintiffs should know whether they entered into any other contracts or agreements that would affect their agreement to arbitrate, the Court can only assume that they are attempting to embark on an impermissible fishing expedition," Caproni wrote.
Still, the judge said lawyers for the coaches may well be able to argue that the proposed arbitrator is so biased against them that the motion to compel arbitration should not be granted, but she said they do not need discovery to do so.
Flores, who was fired in January as head coach of the Miami Dolphins and is now an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, filed the lawsuit in February, saying the league was "rife with racism" even as it publicly condemns it. The other coaches later joined the lawsuit, which sought unspecified damages and class-action status.
The NFL and six of its teams say the lawsuit they maintain is "without merit" is required to go to arbitration, where Goodell would be the arbitrator, according to the terms laid out in employment contracts and in the NFL's constitution.
Caproni wrote that courts have not historically allowed lawyers to gather evidence before deciding whether a case is required to go to arbitration.
"An agreement to arbitrate is binding on the parties unless the agreement is invalid under state contract law," she wrote. "Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, the Court's analysis is generally limited to determining whether there is a valid agreement to arbitrate, whether one party has failed to perform its duties under that agreement, and whether the agreement, properly interpreted, encompasses the dispute at hand."
Attorneys Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis, representing Flores, said in a statement that they are "confident that we will defeat the efforts of the NFL to move this matter into a private and confidential arbitration behind closed doors."
"It is obvious that the NFL is trying to hide behind this process and avoid public scrutiny of the racial discrimination and retaliation claims we have brought. If they are confident in their defenses, they should let the process play out in court so the general public can see," the lawyers said.
In Thursday's ruling, Caproni instructed lawyers for the coaches to submit written arguments against arbitration by Aug. 19 and told the NFL and its teams to respond by Aug. 26.
Her decision came just days after the NFL released the results of its investigation into allegations by Flores that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered $100,000 a game to purposely lose games.
Investigators said that the team didn't intentionally lose and that neither Ross nor anyone from the team told Flores to purposely lose. And investigators added that any $100,000-a-game offer "was not intended or taken to be a serious offer.'' Investigators also found Ross several times during the season expressed his belief that draft position should take priority over won-loss record.
The NFL suspended Ross and fined him $1.5 million for having impermissible communications with Tom Brady when he was under contract with the New England Patriots and with Sean Payton before he announced his decision to retire as coach of the New Orleans Saints.
In a statement, Ross had called Flores' allegations "false, malicious and defamatory.''
Lawyers for the NFL and its teams did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.