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Court orders arbitration in case against Rams

In a splintered decision rendered almost a year after oral arguments, the Missouri Supreme Court said Tuesday that a man alleging age discrimination by the St. Louis Rams must take his claims to an arbitrator, not a judge.

However, the court also ruled that it would be “unconscionable” for the National Football League’s commissioner to serve as the arbitrator in the case, as NFL rules seemed to require.

In a suit filed in 2012 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, Todd Hewitt, an equipment manager for the Rams for more than 40 years, accused the football team of firing him illegally in 2011 at age 54. The circuit court, however ordered the case to go to arbitration under a clause in Hewitt’s employment contract, which required disputes to be arbitrated under NFL guidelines. Those guidelines, in turn, said the NFL commissioner would serve as the arbitrator.

A majority of the court agreed that the case should go to arbitration. However, in an unsigned opinion, Chief Justice Mary R. Russell and Judges Patricia Breckenridge and George W. Draper III said the NFL commissioner could not serve as a neutral arbitrator in a case involving claims against his employers.

“Based on the facts of the present case, the terms in the contract designating the commissioner, an employee of the team owners, as the sole arbitrator with unfettered discretion to establish the rules for arbitration are unconscionable and, therefore, unenforceable,” the judges wrote in their per curiam plurality opinion.

The judges said the case should proceed under a neutral arbitrator operating under the state’s normal arbitration rules.

Judge Richard Teitelman provided a fourth vote in favor of removing the case from the NFL’s framework. However, he argued in a dissent that the case shouldn’t have gone to arbitration at all.

Judge Laura Denvir Stith also wrote a partial dissent. She, however, argued that the NFL commissioner wasn’t necessarily biased, as he works for the league as a whole and not for the St. Louis-based team itself. The court’s ruling “is the first and only decision in the entire country to so hold based simply on the fact that the NFL commissioner is, well, the NFL commissioner,” Stith wrote.

In a pair of dissents, Judges Zel Fischer and Paul C. Wilson argued the case shouldn’t have been before the Supreme Court in the first place. Procedurally, the case came to the court as a writ of mandamus that asked the Supreme Court to stop the circuit judge’s ruling before the case went any further. Fischer wrote that Hewitt’s claims, including the allegations that the commissioner was biased, should have been raised in an appeal following any final arbitration claims.

In a footnote, he referenced the long wait for Tuesday’s opinion. The case was argued May 21, 2014.

“Had the request for extraordinary writ been promptly and properly denied, this case would already have proceeded to arbitration, and, if necessary, with the benefit of a full and complete record final judgment, an appeal could have been sought,” Fischer wrote.

Wilson agreed in a separate opinion that noted the odd outcome for Hewitt.

“Like rescuing a drowning man by throwing him an anvil, the per curiam opinion purports to grant “relief” to Petitioner by ordering him to participate in the very thing he asked this Court to stop, i.e., his arbitration,” Wilson wrote.

The case is State ex rel. Hewitt v. Kerr, SC93846.