Raiderettes
Raiderettes ()

SAN FRANCISCO — The NFL has taken an aggressive stance against an employment suit filed by Oakland Raiders cheerleaders, arguing the football league is exempt from claims brought under California labor law.

Plaintiffs sued the National Football League in June, accusing the franchise of conspiring to depress cheerleaders’ wages. The NFL forbid its female athletes from discussing their compensation with one another and prevented them from being hired by other NFL clubs, according to the complaint filed by Drexel Bradshaw and Clinton Woods of Bradshaw & Associates.

In response, Bingham McCutchen partner Debra Fischer, on behalf of the NFL, argued in a demurrer last month that state antitrust law and the California Labor Code have no authority over the league.

“Divergent state legislation concerning employer-employee relations would disrupt and have a ‘significant impact on the whole league fabric,’” Fischer wrote.

The NFL attorneys cite a 1983 California Supreme Court case, Partee v. San Diego Chargers Football, and a 1994 Fourth District Court of Appeal case, Hebert v. Los Angeles Raiders, in which courts ruled state antitrust law is not applicable to the interstate activities of professional football. Courts cannot impose California antitrust claims on NFL teams, because it could put those teams at a competitive disadvantage on the field when they play out-of-state teams that don’t have to make those antitrust concessions. “Partee‘s bar is simple and unequivocal,” Fischer wrote, and by extension, also applies to labor and employment claims made under California law. It’s a sweeping argument, and one plaintiffs lawyers say seeks to turn a narrow ruling into a limitless exemption from state law.

The Partee bar only applies to antitrust allegations involving current or former football players, Woods said in an interview. It makes no difference to the Raiders’ on-field performance what they pay their cheerleaders, beer vendors or ticket takers.

“It would essentially mean if you’re working for an NFL team in any capacity—be it an executive or a cheerleader or a ticket taker, or anything—that they would have no recourse under state labor law whatsoever,” Woods said. “You take it to its logical extreme … criminal codes are divergent state to state. Does the NFL believe it’s immune from state criminal codes for that reason? It’s absurd.”

Fischer did not respond to a phone message requesting comment.

Woods said this is the first time he’s seen the NFL argue Partee exempts it from state labor claims.

“I think that they believe … that they are kind of above the law,” Woods said, “and it’s shocking from my perspective.”

Contact the reporter at mkendall@alm.com.