MLB’s difficulties in the Biogenesis case

Major League Baseball’s intent to suspend the players linked with the Biogenesis investigation raises some interesting questions. I reviewed some of them in this piece. I also discussed the logistical difficulties with suspending 20 or more players at the same time in a second, concluding that these cases are best heard in the offseason. This article will describe the actual burdens of proof that the clubs must meet in order to have any grievances over suspensions for violating the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) and other potential charges denied.

There are multiple types of violations of the JDA. Under Section 7(A) of the JDA there are violations that are based upon a positive test (frequently referred to as analytic violations—although not in the JDA) and violations for use or possession (non-analytic violations). There are violations for conviction or possession of a prohibited substance as well as violations for participation in sale or distribution of a prohibited substance. There are violations for refusing to take a test without good cause and for adulterating a specimen. There are also violations for failure to comply with evaluation and treatment plans, but those are for drugs of abuse.

Finally, there is the additional possibility for a just cause discipline for something not specifically referenced in the JDA.

In the potential Biogenesis-related suspensions, the discipline levied against employees is assumed be based upon the non-analytic violations, although there is some discussion that the just cause-type charges may also be alleged. This places the clubs in a difficult predicament. As I mentioned in my June 5 article, MLB has argued strenuously that its testing procedure is the best in American professional sports and perhaps even the best in the world. Yet, none of these players has tested positive. Proposing suspension of these players undermines the lauded testing procedures. That said, it also changes the way the grievances must be handled.

Normally there are two proof issues in a discipline case: proving the conduct and proving that the penalty imposed is reasonable and proper. Both are the employer’s responsibility and a preponderance of the evidence standard is applied.

Violations of the analytic provisions of the JDA are strict liability offenses. This means that intent of the player is irrelevant. Believing she was 18 is irrelevant in a criminal case of statutory rape; if she was truly 15, you’re guilty. Believing that it was flackseed oil is irrelevant; if you test positive for androstenedione, you’re guilty. Additionally, the penalties for violations are already set forth in the CBA. Mandatory minimums and maximums are written in black and white. So, for an analytic positive, the employer’s case is quite simple: prove that the employee tested positive and that that required protocols were followed and the grievance will be denied and the suspension upheld.

But, for non-analytic based suspensions, the elements of the case are quite different and much more complicated to prove. In these cases, the charges are expected to be for possession or use of a substance on the prohibited list or for a just cause violation. Wendy Thurm recently analyzed the subject of possession and use over at Fangraphs and I agree with her—use and possession are covered by the CBA, so the penalties would be applied by an arbitrator.

I think MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner’s statement that for non-analytic tests the 50-100-life suspension penalties do not apply is a position of the MLBPA, not necessarily a fact. He also may be indicating that MLB plans to charge under the just cause provision not use and possession.

Use would be a much harder case for the clubs to prove. In non-baseball cases in which the employer refused to provide a blood test or urinalysis despite the employee’s request for one, the employer has been prohibited from relying on supervisory observations for evidence. In this situation it’s worse for the clubs because baseball’s very own tests for the vast majority of these players have been negative. Given that the tests were positive for several players reputed to have used Biogenesis’ products, negative tests would likely be exculpatory.

Possession is somewhat easier to prove than use, but difficult nonetheless. For criminal possession, every statute requires both a criminal act and a criminal intent. The state must prove that the accused knew that the drug was a controlled substance (intent) and the drug was in the person’s possession or constructive possession (act). That is quite different than a strict liability standard for analytic positives, where the test itself proves the act and there is no intent standard.

If this were a criminal case, a player attempting to buy creatine, who instead buys tainted creatine powder containing nandrolone, would not be guilty of the crime of possession. In a positive test under the JDA it wouldn’t matter what the player believed. However, in a possession case, I believe an arbitrator would apply the same standard as in a criminal possession case and the clubs would have to prove both possession and intent to possess a substance on the prohibited list.

It becomes exceeding complicated when the testimony of all of the employer’s witnesses has been paid for by MLB and several of those witnesses have already gone on public record denying providing prohibited substances to players. It is also difficult even if the Biogenesis witnesses are to be believed if the players made the alleged purchases through intermediaries who will not testify.

If I showed up at an anti-aging clinic and said I was buying something for a player, the clinic sold it to me, the clubs would need not just the clinic owner who made the transaction and any contemporaneous notes, but also me to testify that it was for the player and I gave it to him. Otherwise, the burden of proof is not met. It’s not exactly the same as chain of custody, but it’s quite similar, as all elements of the transaction have to be proved.

Another question is under what provision the clubs might suspend players for failure to cooperate with the investigation. Several leaks reported that Ryan Braun refused to answer any questions. Unlike in criminal investigations, there is no Fifth Amendment right to invoke against self-incrimination. But, it is still the employer’s burden to prove the elements of the charge. If Braun only denied the charge, no different than he is likely to do during the hearing, the charge of failure to cooperate in the investigation becomes nothing more than a compounding charge. Braun’s denial or non-participation only becomes a problem if MLB can prove the underlying charge.

Moreover, it’s harder to prove lack of candor than it is providing a false statement when all they have to go on is a denial or non-answer. Also, there are no penalties laid out for these types of violations in the CBA. Therefore, the clubs bear the burden of proving any proposed penalty is fair and reasonable for the violation. As Michael Weiner said at his pre-All-Star Game press conference, a violation under the just cause provision could result in a five-game or 500-game suspension. The same would be true for other alleged conduct.

Yet, what he left out is that MLB has to prove such a penalty is warranted. Consistency of penalties plays a role. Did MLB propose additional discipline against Melky Cabrera for his fake website and attempted cover up of his 2012 positive test? If not, it may have a hard time convincing an arbitrator that a 150-game suspension for Alex Rodriguez or Braun is warranted.

There is also the concept of double jeopardy, which would apply to those who have already been suspended under the analytic provisions—Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, Yasmani Grandal. If their defense is “yes, I did use the drugs provided by Biogenesis, but you’ve already caught me and suspended me for that use” the clubs’ case would be exceeding difficult.

One arbitrator couched how double jeopardy is viewed in arbitration this way: “the key to this arbitral doctrine is not the Constitution but rather fundamental fairness, as guaranteed by the contractual requirement of ‘just cause’ for discipline. Thus when an employee has suffered a suspension for an offense it would be unfair… to fire him before he has committed a second offense.” The clubs’ case would have to include evidence that these were separate instances in order to pursue a charge of second offense use or possession under the JDA.

Overall, I think that these charges are very hard to prove in light of how MLB is presumed to have gotten the evidence and testimony. And, I believe overreach in proposed suspensions will likely make the cases like MLB lost, even if it is able to have some suspensions upheld.

What would the headline be if the clubs propose 200-game suspensions for A-Rod and Braun and get only a 50-game suspension upheld for ARod, and Braun gets off under double jeopardy? What about Melky having his 100-game suspension overturned because it’s not a second violation? MLB is not known to tread cautiously in these types of situations, but if it’s attempting to have discipline actually applied, it must be judicious, fair, and apply reasonable standards to its proposed penalties.

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Comments

  1. JimR said...

    MikeS,

    -Selig’s goons can strongarm the players into confessing and offering statements that can be used against them.

    -Of course MLB lawyers know the problems involved; that’s why it’s taking so long.

    -Your conspiracy theory about appearances echoes that of Jose Canseco’s. MLB has the toughest PED testing in sports. Do you think Selig was happy or OK with Braun getting off on a technicality?

    - The NY Daily News and other outlets have been the ones making unofficial statements like they were real. This includes 20 names, time frame, and double jeopardy.

    -Jim

  2. Dave said...

    This is a very interesting and thorough article, Eugene. It’s really just a lot of speculation until the suspensions are handed down, but for some reason I’m really enjoying it. I do think that Michael Weiner’s comments yesterday were read into too much because we don’t know yet who will be suspended or for what and he could have just been keeping the door open to all possibilities. It seems like by suggesting that suspensions of 5-500 games under the “just cause” portion of the JDA, he is at least keeping the door open to the possibility of suspensions for other reasons than the use, possession, etc. for which the 50 game, 100 game,etc. penalties are codified and that seem to be the reasons everyone is assuming for the suspensions. Perhaps at least some of the suspensions could be for things like lying to investigators, covering up evidence, attempting to buy records to keep them from MLB investigators, bribe potential witnesses, or any number of other things that MLB could have evidence of that we have no idea about. I also found interesting Weiner’s quote almost making it sound like a negotiation that they’ll meet with MLB and “we’ll come up with” fair punishments and appeal those that aren’t. I’m wondering if it’s a possibility that where this is a situation without precedence and MLB might not have the fail-safe evidence to suspend on the basis of use, possession, etc. as contemplated for in the JDA, MLBPA acknowledges that yes some of the players do still deserve suspensions and they’ll kind of meet the league half way and come up with fair suspensions under “just cause” and appeal those that they do not consider fair. I’m not sure if you read the comments but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  3. MikeS said...

    Good stuff, thanks.  It is pretty consistent with what Wendy Thurm and others have written.

    So my question is this.  Presumably, MLB has expensive lawyers that know all of this as well as you do and probably know the CBA even better since that is their job.  Haven’t Selig and the rest run this by their lawyers?  Haven’t they been told of the problems they face if they go down this road?  Do they have something more that they aren’t revealing?  Or are they just grand standing.

    Personally, I think it may actually be grand standing.  It is pretty clear that ownership could have been complicit in the PED use that was rampant in MLB a decade or so ago.  At the very least, they were very willing to look the other way as long as balls were flying out of the park and people were buying tickets and memorabilia.  They didn’t get serious until Congress threatened their precious anti-trust exemption.  It seems very possible to me that MLB is much more interested in appearing tough on PED’s than actually being tough on PED’s.  They don’t mind if the players get acquitted, as long as they can keep pointing accusatory fingers.  Then they can shrug their shoulders and tell the public that they are trying.

  4. Eugene Freedman said...

    Sometimes you explain your legal opinion to your client and the client says, “I don’t care.  Find a way.”  So you find a way to bring a case even though you know it isn’t strong.

    As you say, MLB has different motivations possible- could be PR.  Could be Congressional relations.  Could be a newly converted true believer fervor.  Could be personal.

    And, while I generally agree with Wendy, I don’t agree with her July 11 piece about using the Best interest of Baseball discipline powers.  Failure to cooperate/providing false statements in an investigation is not something unique to baseball.  It’s run of the mill discipline in any workplace.  Plus an arbitrator interprets which section of the CBA applies.  If MLB went down that road Arbitrator Horowitz would rule that such discipline falls within his jurisdiction as a preliminary procedural matter.

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