Jordan Norberto And The Non-Disciplinary Grievance Process

This story has been updated to reflect some information provided by a source about the Norberto case after publication. We apologize for any mistakes in the original post.

We’ve focused a great deal of attention lately on MLB’s power to suspend players involved with Biogenesis and the grievance procedure available to those players who are suspended for violation of the Joint Drug Program. But the collective bargaining agreement provides for a separate and distinct grievance process for all sorts of non-disciplinary matters — namely, disputes between between a player and his club. That grievance procedure isn’t often in the news, but it is this week, and therefore, worth discussing.

Relief pitcher Jordan Norberto filed a grievance late last week against the Oakland A’s. Norberto told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that the A’s shouldn’t have released because he was injured at the time.

At the time he was released, Norberto was on the A’s 40-man roster but playing with the Sacramento River Cats, the A’s Triple-A affiliate. The A’s had optioned Norberto to Triple-A just before Opening Day. After reporting elbow soreness, he was placed on the minor league disabled list in mid-April. The A’s released him on May 8 to make room for Daric Barton on the 40-man roster. Norberto claims that he was already injured when he was optioned to Sacramento, which should have resulted in his placement on the disabled list rather than an option and eventual release.

Norberto’s complaint will be governed by grievance procedures set forth in Article XI of the CBA. It’s a straight forward process that begins with efforts to resolve the dispute informally and ends, if necessary with a formal appeal to MLB’s arbitrator. The process for resolving a player’s complaint with a club is the same as when a club has a complaint with a player. For ease of discussion, I’ll discuss the process that applies when a player has a beef, but you can substitute player for team as you read along. Start to finish, it can take more than a year for grievances to be adjudicated if it goes all the way to an arbitrator, but many are resolved in less time.

The first step in any grievance is for the player to discuss his concerns with the team that took the offending action. If the matter is not resolved, the player must file written notice of his complaint with the team within 45 days of the date the alleged improper action occurred. The team then has 10 days to respond to the player’s complaint in writing. If the player is satisfied with the response, the matter is resolved. If the player is not satisfied, he may file an appeal with MLB’s Labor Relations Division. Any appeal must be filed within 15 days of the the team’s written response.

The appeal to MLB’s Labor Relations Division triggers a meeting among that division, the player, and the MLBPA in an effort to resolve the dispute. This Step 2 meeting must take place within 35 days of the player’s appeal. After the meeting the Labor Relations Division has 10 days to issue a written decision. If the player is not satisfied with the Division’s decision, he has 15 days file an appeal with MLB’s arbitrator. The arbitrator must hold a hearing, but has one year from the date the appeal is filed to do so. That’s a much longer appeal period than for discipline-related grievances, which have priority.

The hearings follow a stripped-down version of the procedural and evidentiary rules typically used in arbitrations: essentially, parties exchange documents; witnesses are subject to cross-examination; and the arbitrator is free to consider what he wants, as long as it’s consistent with the terms of the CBA and the player’s contract. The arbitrator must issue a written decision, which is final and binding on all parties.

You can read the grievance provision in its entirety at pages 38-48 of the CBA. The procedural rules for the arbitrations are found in Appendix A to the CBA, at the very end of the document.

There’s no obligation for the player or the team to publicly disclose when grievances are filed. Often the disputes are resolved in private. But we have learned about a few grievances in recent years. Perhaps the most contentious involved Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) and the Mets in 201o. K-Rod was involved in an altercation with his girlfriend’s father during which he injured his right thumb. After he underwent season-ending surgery, the Mets placed K-Rod on the disqualified list, announced they would withhold the remainder of his 2010 salary and, sought to designate his contract as non-guaranteed. After K-Rod filed a grievance, the parties settled: the Mets reinstated Rodriguez from the disqualified list and affirmed his contract, but Rodriguez forwent the remainder of his 2010 salary.

Yorvit Torrealba was on the losing end of a grievance, also involving the Mets. The veteran catcher had agreed to a 3-year deal with New York in 2007, subject to a physical. The physical revealed concerns about Torrealba’s right shoulder and the Mets backed out of the deal. He filed a grievance in 2008 and Shyam Das — then MLB’s arbitrator — denied the grievance. The decision was issued in 2011.

Anibal Sanchez filed a grievance somewhat similar to Norberto’s back in 2007, when he pitched for the Marlins. Florida demoted Sanchez to the minors after he injured his right shoulder. Sanchez claimed the Marlins violated the CBA’s rules against demoting injured players. The Marlins claimed Sanchez didn’t inform them of the injury until after the demotion. The demotion affected not only Sanchez’s salary but his arbitration clock. The only information I found on how the grievance was resolved came from a Marlins forum, which linked to a now-dead Miami Herald story. According to the forum, Sanchez won his grievance; the Marlins were ordered to pay him more than $200,000 in salary and his arbitration clock was re-set to include the time he spent in the minors in 2007.

The relationship between a player and his team is complex. Disputes can and do arise. If the disputes can’t be resolved informally, either side can ask an arbitrator to resolve it. It’s a somewhat slow and painstaking process. And a fair one.



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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


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