Print and Go Back News & Opinion [Print without images]

Friday, April 29, 2011
The woman who stopped the NFL lockout

By Amanda Rykoff

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson probably never expected to land in the national football spotlight, let alone only four months after being sworn in.

But that is exactly what happened to the 59-year-old mother of two, as she has presided over one of the most significant and highest-profile cases in recent memory: Brady et al. v. National Football League et al. -- aka the NFL Lockout Case.

On Monday, she issued a major blow to the NFL when she granted the players' request to end the league-imposed lockout. Nelson also rejected the league's arguments that it had the right to continue treating the NFL Players Association, which has decertified, as a union.

"The irreparable harm to the players outweighs any harm an injunction would cause the NFL," Nelson wrote in her decision.

On Thursday, Nelson denied the NFL's motion to stay her ruling lifting the lockout, stating, "The NFL has not met its burden for obtaining a stay pending appeal, expedited or otherwise."

The NFL has appealed the denial to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, seeking a stay to keep the lockout in place. Teams will open their facilities to players starting Friday to avoid being in contempt of the judge's ruling.

Nelson didn't arrive in the crosshairs of the league and players' union by choice; a computer randomly selected her after two other district court judges recused themselves from the case. But friends and experts in the sports law field say there is nobody better prepared to handle a high-profile, demanding case than Nelson, who served as a U.S. magistrate judge from 2000 to 2010.

Minneapolis-based sports lawyer Clark Griffith has known Nelson for nearly 20 years and has appeared before her on a few occasions. Though she is not mediating the NFL case, during her time as a magistrate judge, Nelson earned a reputation as a highly skilled negotiator. "The story was that if you were in a settlement with Judge Nelson, the deal is done," Griffith said. "You're going to stay there until you have a deal. She will work it out of you."

The NFL lockout case isn't Nelson's first time in the spotlight. Before being appointed as a federal magistrate judge, the graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and the University of Pittsburgh Law School was a partner with the Minneapolis-based law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi.

During her 16 years with the national plaintiffs' firm, she litigated several complex product-liability and mass tort matters in some of the most significant lawsuits in Minnesota and the U. S. She played a major role in the landmark 1998 tobacco case that, after four years of discovery and hearings, resulted in a $7 billion settlement with seven tobacco companies.

Legal experts tried to get a read on Nelson when they heard she had been appointed to the NFL case. With such a short track record as a judge, observers looked into her history as a litigator.

"What in Judge Nelson's past would lead us to believe that she would favor antitrust over labor law in this situation? I'm not sure," said Gabe Feldman, an associate professor of law at Tulane Law School and director of the Tulane Sports Law Program. "Tobacco litigation means that she favors the little guy. But I don't know that we have a 'little guy' in this case. It's hard to compare the 40th guy on the NFL roster to a tobacco litigant."

Nelson brings a record of thoroughness and outstanding preparation to the bench. The fact that she delivered a meticulous, well-reasoned and comprehensive 89-page decision Monday did not come as a surprise to those monitoring the proceedings.

"Her reputation is that she is incredibly thorough and fair and I think we saw that during the hearing," Feldman said. "We certainly saw the thoroughness in the 110 pages of opinion she's written so far. Agree or disagree with her conclusions, you can't fault her for the length and depth."

It's also not Nelson's first time dealing with a matter involving the NFL. As a U.S. magistrate judge, she presided over motions in last year's Dryer v. NFL class-action lawsuit involving compensation for the use of retired NFL players' likenesses. The decision issued by Judge Paul Magnuson on Jan. 26, 2010, denied the NFL's motion for a judgment on the pleadings -- in which the court would have rendered a decision without the introduction of evidence -- continuing a long history of pro-NFL player judicial decisions from Minnesota district court. The Dryer matter is ongoing.

"The thing that struck me the most at the hearing on April 6 was how knowledgeable Judge Nelson was about the facts of the case," Feldman said. "Was it a factor of her involvement in the Dryer case? Or is just the case that she is a thorough and well-prepared judge? But this was not a case where she was asking basic questions. She knew the basics down cold and could jump right to the heart of the difficult points."

"And she's certainly not shy about sharing her knowledge."

Griffith, the Minneapolis sports lawyer, strongly believes that the NFL case should be handled via labor law, not antitrust law. Though he was somewhat disappointed by Nelson's decision, Griffith was happy for his friend on a personal level. "I was thrilled for her and knew she'd be very diligent in what she was doing," Griffith said. "[The decision] was very thorough and she didn't miss a point. That's very much her style. Thoroughness and completeness and also evenhandedness."