Why Jon Gruden's lawsuit against the NFL could force league's secrets into the open

In high-profile legal cases, it's sometimes not just about who wins and loses.

It's also about whose private business gets dragged into public along the way.

Such is the undercurrent of the lawsuit that former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden filed last week against the NFL, alleging that the league and commissioner Roger Goodell deliberately leaked Gruden's vulgar emails to the news media in an effort to force him out of his job. The lawsuit, which was filed in a Nevada state court, described it as "a Soviet-style character assassination."

Gruden contends the NFL both interfered with his Raiders contract and disrupted his ability to make money through endorsements. He also claims the league was negligent. (NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy called these allegations "entirely meritless.")

Yet the practical impact of Gruden's lawsuit goes beyond the merit of its claims.

"Litigation always opens up the opportunity for discovery," American University law professor N. Jeremi Duru said. "And discovery opens up the possibility of embarrassment – or indications of impropriety among the party whose documents and information is being discovered."

For the NFL, which tends to fiercely guard private information and try to control every narrative, the Gruden lawsuit represents yet another forum in which it might not be able to do either.

The league is currently fighting a costly lawsuit in St. Louis, in which the city alleges the NFL violated its relocation rules and breached its contract with the city when the Rams moved to Los Angeles. Goodell and several team owners have been deposed and required to turn over financial records in the case, and some of the emails obtained in the discovery process haven't been flattering.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, they show executive Kevin Demoff forwarding negative articles about St. Louis crime to the league, and a goodbye letter to the city being circulated internally as the "AMF letter" – as in "adios, mother (expletive)."

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Separately and more recently, the NFL has also been asked to turn over documents to members of the House Oversight Committee, who are looking into its handling of the Washington Football Team investigation. The probe did not result in a written report, and Goodell has previously declined to release materials from it, citing a desire to protect the employees who spoke to investigators.

"The NFL has committed to producing documents," Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-IL, said in a statement earlier this month. "We look forward to seeing them."

There is no certainty that the Gruden case will make it to the discovery stage. Experts said they believe the NFL will likely try to get the lawsuit thrown out right away or moved to federal court, where judges tend to be more scrutinizing.

Should those efforts fail, however, Gruden's lawyers could ask the league to turn over relevant evidence – including, most notably, the other 650,000 emails it obtained as part of the WFT probe. 

"The way that his lawyers framed this case is such that it’s going to be really hard for the NFL to avoid these emails being produced, in some fashion," said Michael Elkins, a Florida-based employment lawyer. 

"I think the NFL, if they get to that place, there will be some parameters. What those parameters are, I’m not sure. But generally speaking, discovery is a very broad process."

Ruben Garcia, a professor at UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law, said there is a chance that the judge could dismiss some, but not all, of Gruden's claims. But he suspects the crux of the lawsuit would need discovery to be proved or disproved.

"There’s a big question factually about whether there was intent here – a real intent to get rid of Mr. Gruden," said Garia, who specializes in labor and employment law. "It’s a very hard thing to allege and just assert on its face on a complaint, and not have to go through the process of actually proving that."

The NFL is no stranger to the litigation process, of course. And it has developed a reputation for being fierce in its fights, and equally shrewd when backing away.

In the Deflategate case, for example, the league spent more than a year and an estimated $12 million in legal fees to uphold its suspension of Tom Brady. It's been fighting St. Louis in the relocation dispute for more than four years, with a trial date set for early next year.

Yet in other instances, such as a 2012 concussion lawsuit, it quickly reached a settlement before discovery.

"It fights really hard, but settles when it’s in its best interests," Duru said.

"If (Gruden's lawsuit) is a case where the NFL’s concerned about any of these emails causing a problem for them – either legally or in the eyes of the media and the public – I think the likelihood is that they’d settle."

Elkins noted that the NFL has proven to be pretty resilient to bad PR over the years, and that the fear of the discovery process in the Gruden case could be overblown. It could very well try to fight the lawsuit on its merits all the way to trial, should it get that far. 

In either case, he said, the NFL's strategy will be telling. 

"I presume they know what’s in those emails," Elkins said, "so I presume that they will proceed accordingly."

Contributing: Jarrett Bell, Chris Bumbaca and Mike Jones

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jon Gruden's lawsuit against NFL could force secrets into the open

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