9:57am PT by Eriq Gardner
CAA Tries in Vain to Hush Up Star Agent's $15 Million Arbitration Win
Creative Artists Agency believed it had an absolute right to fire Ben Dogra, who formerly oversaw the talent agency's football division, for outrageous behavior. Not only did an arbitrator conclude that CAA was the one at fault under an employment agreement, but CAA has now failed in keeping an arbitrator's $15 million award from becoming public. Nevertheless, as Hollywood agents are beginning to gossip about the Dogra case, CAA is continuing its bid to keep confidential all that happened. For an industry that enjoys the enormous privacy afforded by alternative dispute resolution, a Missouri federal judge is next set to determine whether a star agent has the right to tell everyone that CAA fired him without cause.
Dogra, who represents such NFL stars as Adrian Peterson, Robert Griffin III, and A.J. Green, joined CAA Sports in 2006. His employment agreement was later renewed, and he was paid a base salary of $3.6 million, a guaranteed bonus of $900K, and 60 percent of residual net income from the football division, where he worked in conjunction with another giant in the football world: Tom Condon.
In November 2014, Dogra was told at a meeting that he was being fired. At the time, he didn't get reasons for his termination. It certainly mattered. Under his contract, if he was fired with cause, he was required to pay fees totaling $9 million to CAA. If he was terminated without cause, he'd have to refund CAA his base salary and bonuses for that year but would retain the revenue that he was responsible generating for the agency.
After he was fired, others were told various things about Dogra's departure. For example, Dante Fowler Jr., a defensive end who now plays for the Los Angeles Rams, was allegedly told that Dogra's firing had to do with drugs. The players' union, meanwhile, was told that CAA had "no choice" but to fire him.
Once the case went to arbitration, CAA detailed why it had let Dogra go.
According to the agency, Dogra failed to oversee the football division in conjunction with Condon and he had sent menacing and profane messages to CAA employees, the media and NFL team executives. One example given was how Dogra allegedly attempted to "blackmail" a Minnesota Vikings executive in order to secure Adrian Peterson's release. (At that time, the team wouldn't play Peterson, one of the best running backs in NFL history, after a suspension related to child abuse.)
Nevertheless, in an arbitration award, M. David Vaughn concluded that while Dogra's communications were certainly "vitriolic," CAA failed to show that clients or league executives were refusing to deal with him.
"The same cannot be said about Dogra's communications during the period to and about his fellow CAA employees," continued the arbitrator. "While the agent business is a full contact sport, and while Dogra's superiors, peers and subordinates all knew (and largely tolerated) his abusive and erratic manner of operating the cited communications could not but have substantial adverse – and perhaps irreversible – impact on Dogra's ability to deal with the targets of his communications going forward."
Why CAA didn't win the case was the arbitrator's next conclusion that the agency had failed as contractually required to give him notice and the opportunity to cure his misbehavior. The arbitrator was also persuaded that Dogra worked with Condon even if the relationship was "damaged."
Vaughn ruled that CAA failed to live up to obligations to pay Dogra's share of revenue, although the arbitrator also gave CAA some good wins. For instance, Vaughn determined Dogra wasn't entitled to receive direct commissions from players and also rejected the agent's defamation claims because they were premised on hearsay or could be interpreted to have non-defamatory meaning. Additionally, the arbitrator rejected Dogra's bid for $13 million in "expectation damages" based on what the agent felt was coming to him had he not been let go in the way he was. Dogra's contention that he "owned" the football division and merely licensed the rights to the business to CAA also failed to persuade the judge.
In follow-up decisions, the arbitrator dealt with the scope of what was owed. Dogra ultimately became the beneficiary of a $12.5 million decision and interest, which Dogra claims to be worth $2.35 million.
The money is obviously big (and partly a function of how the pot was divided and who held onto the pot given certain clients staying with CAA and other clients following Dogra out the door), but the issue of confidentiality would soon rise to be one of the most important issues of consideration.
Dogra wanted Vaughn to allow him to put out a press release about the result. The agent maintained that since it was reported that he was fired "for cause," he should get an opportunity to make a public declaration that he was fired without cause.
The arbitrator looked at the employment contract, which provided that "all arbitration will be confidential," and held that the term "arbitration" was ambiguous here in that it could just mean the proceedings and hearing but not the award. Ultimately, though, Vaughn decided to neither endorse nor reject Dogra's request to make a statement. The arbitrator didn't think he had jurisdiction on this issue. When Dogra demanded reconsideration, CAA pointed to Vaughn's lack of jurisdiction.
What happened next is how, to CAA's chagrin, the matter became public anyway leading to this story.
CAA filed a lawsuit in Missouri in an effort to vacate the arbitrator's award. But the agency attempted to do it as quietly as possible by immediately sealing its court documents. The agency told the judge that sealing was warranted to "protect its rights under the Federal Arbitration Act while simultaneously respecting the agreed confidentiality of the arbitration provisions."
Dogra then filed counterclaims and opposed the sealing. And with a thumb in CAA's eyes, he publicly lodged the arbitrator's opinions.
CAA is blasting what it sees as a "lack of respect for the legal process... by deliberately disclosing confidential information to the public."
On Wednesday, despite previously rallying behind the arbitrator's decision that there was no jurisdiction to decide the issue of whether Dogra was free to tell the world about his success, CAA took the position that "any dispute over the confidentiality of the arbitration Awards at issue in this matter are subject to mandatory arbitration pursuant to the employment agreement between Dogra and CAA."