By Valerie Caras*
On February 3, the United States Soccer Federation Inc., the official governing body of soccer in the United States that is more popularly known as “US Soccer,” filed a complaint in federal court for “anticipatory breach of contract and for declaratory relief” against the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association is the exclusive bargaining representative for the Women’s National Team, and therefore Players for the team are employees of US Soccer.
The issue in this case is whether or not a collective bargaining agreement exists between US Soccer and the Players Association. The team’s last CBA expired in 2012. After six-months of negotiations between U.S. Soccer and then Players Association Executive Director Mr. John Langel (a partner at Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr) the parties agreed to a memorandum of understanding on March 19, 2013 to guide the terms of the CBA until December 31, 2016.
In late 2014, Mr. Langel left the Players Association and Mr. Richard Nichols took over as Executive Director. On December 24, 2015, Mr. Nichols said that the Players Association “considered the updated memorandum of understanding invalid as a collective bargaining agreement” and said that “if a new agreement was not in place in 60 days — by Feb. 24 — the old one would end and the players would no longer be bound by its no-strike clause” and could potentially engage in additional labor actions.  Mr. Nichols considers the memorandum of understanding to be “terminable at will.” US Soccer’s complaint interestingly refers to the memorandum of understanding as a collective bargaining agreement in and of itself and is bound by the expiration date.
US Soccer is thus requesting declaratory relief by asking the Court to reaffirm the validity of the CBA and its December 31, 2016 expiration date. According to the 217-page complaint, US Soccer “reluctantly” filed suit after Mr. Nichols threatened to “repudiate the parties’ current collective bargaining agreement” prior to its expiration date and “to ‘engage in actions’ in violation of a ‘no strike’ clause in advance of the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games and the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League season.” US Soccer alleges that the impetus for seeking relief from the courts occurred when Mr. Nichols refused to agree that the Players Association would not “strike or engage in any job actions prior to December 31, 2016.” US Soccer states that it will “bargain in good faith with the Players Association for a new collective bargaining agreement on mutually agreeable terms effective January 1, 2017,” but those future negotiations do not deter the Players Association from honoring a CBA previously agreed to in 2013.
According to The New York Times, Mr. Nichols rejected US Soccer’s accusation that he had threatened a labor action. He went on to say that the dispute centers on an “honest disagreement about whether there is a valid C.B.A. We’re just trying to get some clarity.” Star goalkeeper Hope Solo went a bit further on Twitter: “We players stand together, united in our fight for what is right and fair.”
Of the 217 page complaint, 191 pages contain evidence including memos, e-mails and other documents that US Soccer claims do support the validity of the CBA at issue and its December 2016 expiration date. The expiration date is especially significant: both US Soccer and presumably the Players Association would not likely want a contractual dispute to impact the players’ preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, or the newly created professional National Women’s Soccer League.
In terms of procedure, US Soccer justifies subject matter jurisdiction primarily under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 federal question because this dispute arises under the Section 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185(a). They also claim 28 U.S.C. § 1332 diversity jurisdiction would be met because the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 and the parties are of diverse citizenship (US Soccer is incorporated in New York with its principal place of business in Chicago, Illinois, while the Players Association is headquartered in Keller, Texas, where Mr. Nicolas is located). US Soccer states that the Players Association meets the minimum contacts test such that personal jurisdiction would be proper by the district court.  Finally, US Soccer states that venue is appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b) because a “substantial portion of the events at issue occurred in [the Northern District of Illinois], including but not limited to the negotiations of the collective bargaining agreement at issue as well as the performance of that agreement.”
*Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports and Entertainment Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2018, Villanova University School of Law.