Hausfeld leads former players’ legal battles
Michael Hausfeld has battled some tough adversaries in his more than four decades as an attorney: Nazi-era companies that profited off slave labor; Exxon in the aftermath of the Valdez oil spill; the Smithsonian for its use of indigenous artifacts; and even a school district that would not change its Saturday commencement date for its two valedictorian speakers who were Orthodox Jewish.
Now, many of Hausfeld’s foes, and clients, are in the sports world. Hausfeld LLP is representing retired players in a lawsuit against the NFLPA alleging the union illegally negotiated benefits on their behalf, and is one of three firms representing ex-players suing NFL Films claiming nonpayment for use of their images. Hausfeld, 64, also is representing former college players suing the NCAA for allegedly profiting off their images.
The veteran lawyer is at the front of some of the biggest cases in sports.
The fate of retired players has long been a hobbyhorse of various groups, but Hausfeld’s lawsuit against the NFLPA aims to forever sever the union’s role in the area. The lawsuit, whose lead plaintiff is Carl Eller, alleges that the union broke labor law when it negotiated benefits for retired players during the lockout at a time when it had decertified. In fact, Hausfeld estimates the union took $500 million that the league was willing to pay retirees and gave it to active players.
“It was a bit of arrogance on the part of the dissolved union, mixed with hubris that they were doing what they always did and nobody would say anything to the contrary,” said Hausfeld. “It was a misjudgment that retirees wouldn’t call them out for essentially selling out their rights in favor of others.”
Jeffrey Kessler, an outside attorney for the NFLPA who has filed with the Minnesota federal court to represent the union in the case, declined to comment. The NFLPA is expected to file its response in the case later this month.
Many retired players have long railed against the union for its role in establishing retiree benefits, but Hausfeld is a newcomer to their cause.
“When the union decertified, they gave retired players a window of opportunity for real change and Michael Hausfeld [and his team] are fighting for us through the courts,” said Dave Pear, a former player whose blog, davepear.com, documents his long-running battles with the union and the NFL over benefits.
Hausfeld, a 1969 graduate of George Washington University Law School, worked on the antitrust case that broke up AT&T in the 1970s, and soon became part of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, which brought groundbreaking cases in areas like sexual discrimination, American Indian rights and Holocaust reparations. Three years ago he formed his own firm, Hausfeld LLC, which has 18 lawyers in four offices.
Eller describes Hausfeld as an almost serene influence who has rightly calmed him down during meetings with the NFL and NFLPA.
As he ages, Hausfeld said he now sees what he calls discrimination against older players in a new light. “It’s kind of personal,” he said. “I am in the elder status.”
Hausfeld first represented Eller and a group of retirees in a lawsuit against the NFL when the lockout began in March. But that lawsuit has since been dropped with the lockout’s end, replaced by the case against the NFLPA.
The point of the original lawsuit was always about getting at the NFLPA, Eller said. It was a way to get a seat at the table.
Hausfeld’s work on behalf of Eller gained notice last month when he was hired by a different group of retired players suing NFL Films for several years over use of their images.
Hausfeld talks calmly yet emotionally about his work for those he sees as being ignored despite their past contributions.
“Particularly those who are elder, who are at the forefront of establishing a reputation or character for a business and then being mistreated,” he said of the types of clients he represents. “In this instance,” he said of the Eller case, “it was clear older retirees were being shortchanged, and nobody was listening to them. In fact just the opposite; they were being pushed and shoved aside.”