Monday, March 30, 2020

Coronavirus, Force Majeure, and Your Business Contract – Will the Charlotte Hornets and Other NBA Players Be Paid?

The coronavirus (more formally known as COVID-19) is now impacting every part of life. In our last blog post, we discussed general issues on how coronavirus might impact your business contract, and pointed out that the effects of this disease are impacting whether people are getting paid. The NBA just suspended its games for the immediate future - what about NBA players while the National Basketball Association’s games are suspended? Are Mr. Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets obligated to pay players like Devonte Graham, Terry Rozier, Dwayne Bacon, and PJ Washington? Must the Warriors provide contractual wages to Steph Curry? Let’s explore how we might find the answers.

What contract controls the relationship between the National Basketball Association and its teams like the Boston Celtics on the one side and players like Kemba Walker on the other? The relationship between the NBA, the teams, and the players is generally governed by contract law, and specifically a business contract almost 600 pages long titled the “Collective Bargaining Agreement” (the “CBA”).

What key part of the CBA might largely control what happens in these coronavirus-induced circumstances? What immediately comes to mind is whether there is a “Force Majeure” clause somewhere in those many pages of fine legal verbiage. Click here for a brief recap of what a Force Majeure clause is; in essence, some unusual, significant condition beyond the control of a contractual party which interferes with that party’s ability to perform duties under the contract. Yep, on page 467 is “Section 5: Termination by NBA/Force Majeure”.

Is something like COVID-19 addressed in the CBA under the Force Majeure clause? Notably, the list of Force Majeure items in the NBA’s contract with the National Basketball Players Association [sic] does include “epidemics”. That term is not defined specifically in the CBA, which means we’d typically look to the standard definition, perhaps influenced by what definitions relevant courts of law have accepted over time. “Epidemic: a disease affecting many persons at the same time, and spreading from person to person in a locality where the disease is not permanently prevalent.” Very few reasonable minds would disagree that coronavirus is an epidemic in the United States right now (and in Canada to a certain extent, let’s not forget the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors).

You should also know that the Collective Bargaining Agreement – which, again, is a business contract - allows the NBA to terminate that contract after a Force Majeure event.

So does coronavirus mean that the NBA doesn’t have to pay the players while games are suspended? There may be an epic battle over that very question.  The CBA specifically states that if a Force Majeure event (like coronavirus – an “epidemic”) occurs and causes teams not to be able to play one or more games, and those games are not made up, each player who was part of that team shall have his overall compensation for that season reduced by 1.08%. (In the contract it’s actually expressed as a fraction – 1/92.6th, based on an agreement that for this purpose a season is made up of 92.6 games.)

Interestingly, this part of the CBA specifically states that neither the NBA nor the Players Association must terminate the contract even if it has the right to do so, including as to the NBA’s right to cancel the CBA due to this Force Majeure event. However, there is not similar language which specifically addresses whether the NBA has the option to reduce compensation to the players under a Force Majeure circumstance. Thus we are left with language mentioned in the previous paragraph (and in the CBA itself, the previous page) which says that the players’ compensation “shall” be reduced.

If I was arguing for non-payment, I’d argue that the contract doesn’t allow the teams to pay the players in these circumstances even if the teams wanted to. The players, presumably, would argue that a contractual party always has the right not to enforce one of its rights, and thus the teams could of course pay the players if they so choose. Also, there are certainly other aspects of this 598-page contract, governed by New York and/or Federal law, which influence these legalities, and this article is not attempting to engage in a detailed analysis of this issue and is not attempting to interpret or comment on New York law.

This NBA stuff is interesting, but what about my business? Can your lawyers help my company deal with contract issues? Yes, that’s what we do. We explore, we troubleshoot, we diagnose, we advise, we repair, we resolve, we combat, whichever is appropriate. If you want help and the subject matter and the jurisdiction (which state, etc.) match up with those of our Firm, reach out to us and ask for a consultation; one way to do so is by clicking here. Good luck and keep yourself – and your business – safe!

McGrath and Spielberger, PLLC handles business law and contract law matters every day, and has lawyers who are licensed to practice in FL, GA, NC, OH, SC, and TN (if you are unsure as to what jurisdiction applies to your legal matter, we can help make that determination).