Ben Dogra v CAA: The Agent Business Is A Full Contact Sport
Former National Football League super agent Ben Dogra is waging a war against his former employer Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in federal court. The pending action comes after the parties engaged in an arbitration battle that lasted multiple years with the arbitrator ultimately declaring that Dogra, the former agent for Adrian Peterson, Robert Griffin III and others, be awarded more than $12 million from team contract fees, marketing deals and post-award interest.
The Beginnings Of Ben Dogra’s Term At CAA
CAA was an entertainment agency representing the largest stars in Hollywood well before it decided to open up a division dedicated to managing the careers of professional athletes. In 2007, that changed when CAA brought in Howard Nuchow, David Rone and Michael Levine to run a brand new sports division.
CAA Sports quickly became known for its football division, led by agents Dogra and Tom Condon. Casey Close, who eventually left CAA to join Excel Sports, ran the baseball division, while there were rumors that NBA agent Leon Rose (who represented LeBron James at the time), would be starting up the basketball side of the business for CAA. Rose did eventually join CAA, but James also left to be represented by Rich Paul at Klutch Sports.
At CAA, Dogra became a behemoth in the football representation world. SportsBusiness Journal named him to its 50 most influential people in sports business, Dogra and Condon represented four of the top twelve picks of the 2010 NFL Draft (Derrick Morgan, Gerald McCoy, Bryan Bulaga and Jermaine Gresham) and NFL players (such as Antonio Cromartie) were constantly leaving their prior representation for the duo of Dogra and Condon.
CAA Football Extends Its Reach By Adding To The Dogra/Condon Duo
At the end of 2011, CAA Football brought in another heavyweight to bolster its already very powerful football division. Jimmy Sexton, long known as the nation’s premier college football coaching agent, left SportsTrust Advisors to join Dogra and Condon at CAA Football. The move immediately shifted the balance of power among football agencies, but also altered the dynamic within CAA’s football division.
One of Sexton’s first big signings as an agent at CAA was former Alabama running back and Heisman Trophy Finalist Trent Richardson. He also represented 2012 NFL Draft first rounder Dontari Poe from Memphis.
Despite Addition Of Sexton, Dogra Re-Ups With CAA
An exhibit attached to Dogra’s counterclaim in his current lawsuit against CAA is the employment agreement he signed with CAA to cover the five year term from January 1, 2012 through December 31, 2016. It is that employment agreement that became the main subject of the underlying arbitration battle between Dogra and CAA.
The employment agreement established that Dogra was responsible for overseeing CAA Football. As consideration for his role, Dogra would be paid a base salary of $3.6 million per year, an annual minimum guaranteed bonus of $900,000 and 60% of “Residual Net Income” of CAA Football, which was defined as the gross revenues of CAA Football minus payment of or reduction for things such as operating costs and expenses directly attributable to the operation of CAA Football. The agreement also included a section that allowed, but did not force, CAA to pay Dogra an additional discretionary bonuses.
Dogra was required to assign all revenues, that he generated from representing NFL players, to CAA.
Drama Starts To Surround Dogra
In the 2013 NFL Draft, Dogra co-represented five first round selections (Luke Joeckel, Sheldon Richardson, Eric Reid, Tyler Eifert and Bjoern Werner). By all accounts, Dogra remained one of the most powerful NFL agents in the world after he signed a very lucrative new deal with CAA.
Then, in November 2014, Dogra was fired for cause by CAA. Even Deadspin, which is typically on top of these kinds of things, was fishing for information surrounding the firing and was unable to uncover anything.
Dogra moved on to become the co-CEO of Relativity Sports’ football division, began to start losing clients and was seen engaging in a verbal altercation with Minnesota Vikings vice president of football operations, Rob Brzezinski.
At the time, Relativity Sports CEO Happy Walters said that “whatever issues [Dogra] has with CAA will work themselves out in arbitration. That is between Ben and CAA.”
CAA’s “For Cause” Foundation Is Challenged By Dogra
On February 27, 2015, Dogra filed an arbitration action against CAA that concerned the circumstances of his termination by CAA. The crux of the claim revolved around the termination with cause language in the employment agreement and the facts surrounding whether or not CAA had grounds to remove Dogra based on cause and followed the required procedures set forth in Dogra’s employment agreement.
The employement agreement stated that “Cause” shall mean: “(i) involvement in any activity resulting in a criminal conviction; (ii) any material breach by [Dogra] of any of the terms and conditions contained in this Agreement if such breach is materially injurious to CAA Sports and continues for fifteen (15) or more days after [Dogra’s] receipt of written notice from CAA Sports of such breach, (iii) any drug, alcohol or substance use, abuse or addiction that renders [Dogra] in any material respect unable to perform [Dogra’s] duties as set forth in this agreement, (iv) the decertification or suspension of [Dogra] by the NFL, the NFLPA or any disciplinary committee thereof, (v) any violation by [Dogra] of NCAA rules alleged by the NCAA or any similar state regulations which results in sanctions against [Dogra] or CAA sports, and/or (vi) any violation of 15 USC 104 Section 7801, et. seq.”
The agreement also indicated that if Dogra were to be terminated for cause, then he would still continue to be entitled to receive his base salary and minimum guaranteed bonuses.
In arbitration, Dogra claimed that CAA failed to complete two required conditions prior to his termination: (1) to provide fifteen days’ written notice; and (2) allowing a period for Dogra to try to cure any alleged breach. CAA’s response was that it would have been futile to give Dogra the notice or opportunity to cure, because Dogra’s behavior was so egregious that it was incapable of being cured.
Dogra also said that CAA had failed to continue to pay him revenues required by the contract as well as all revenue that Dogra assigned to CAA from January 1 of the year that his employment agreement was terminated.
The Drama Extended To Dogra’s Relationship With Sexton
Dogra contended, in the arbitration, that Sexton informed NFL player Dante Fowler, Jr. and his father that Dogra abused drugs, which was the supposed cause for his termination by CAA. Fowler was being recruited by Dogra, but ultimately signed with Sexton and CAA.
Dante Fowler, Sr. submitted a declaration in the arbitration affirming that Sexton said Dogra was on drugs and Dogra refused to go to counseling. Sexton and his assistant testified that none of that was ever uttered.
Dogra made a claim for defamation in the arbitration based on Sexton’s alleged statements as well as CAA’s notifications sent to the National Football League Players’ Association, which ended up causing Dogra’s suspension as an NFLPA Contract Advisor. Dogra never returned to representing NFL players after that.
The Arbitrator Assigned To The Dogra Case Finds In Favor Of the Agent
On July 18, 2016, arbitrator M. David Vaughn provided the parties with his first written opinion on the matter. It was supplemented a total of four times between that date and August 10, 2018. The fourth and final supplemental opinion delivered on August 10 incorporated all of arbitrator Vaughn’s prior opinions.
In Vaughn’s first opinion, issued on July 18, 2016, he found that CAA did not provide Dogra with its reasons for terminating him when CAA said it was firing Dogra with cause. During the course of the arbitration; however, CAA said that Dogra’s behavior, which included emails, texts and phone messages that Dogra sent to CAA employees and third parties, served as material breaches of the agreement. The arbitrator found those communications to basically be rants to and about other CAA employees and third parties. Dogra admitted that his communications could have been more tempered, but stood by his position that he was acting in the best interests of the company.
“While the agent business is a full contact sport, and while Dogra’s superiors, peers and subordinates all knew (and largely tolerated) his abusive anderratic 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,” wrote arbitrator Vaughn in his opinion.
Importantly, the arbitrator was tasked with determining whether CAA should have provided Dogra with notice and an opportunity to cure, highlighting that it was CAA’s burden to prove futility as it alleged.
“I am not persuaded on the evidence or on the law that Dogra’s behavior could not have been cured in November of 2014 if he had been afforded the required notice and cure period,” said arbitrator Vaughn. “And, CAA itself apparently believed that there were circumstances under which Dogra’s conduct would not require termination, e.g. a treatable medical/psychological condition.”
Thus, CAA’s entire argument that it terminated Dogra for cause was flawed. Without providing notice and an opportunity to cure, CAA could not properly terminate Dogra for cause.
That aside, even had CAA proven futility, arbitrator Vaughn was tempted to find in favor of Dogra, because Dogra fulfilled his main duties under the employment agreement — to oversee the football division and work in conjunction with Condon. While Dogra may not have been pleasant to work with, that was not a condition of the contract. Arbitrator Vaughn further stated that CAA failed to establish that it was materially injured by Dogra’s actions, highlighting that CAA made a considerable amount of money from Dogra’s participation in and administration of CAA Football.
The arbitrator did not find in favor of Dogra with regard to his defamation claims.
Dogra Gets His Pay, Or So He Thinks
Arbitrator Vaughn initially awarded Dogra with all client revenue under valid Standard Representation Agreements, set off by any salary and bonus payments made by CAA to Dogra in 2014. He also awarded Dogra with marketing revenues and any revenues that may be due under applicable coaching contracts.
In his fourth and final supplemental opinion and award, arbitrator Vaughn granted Dogra’s request for post-award interest. However, Dogra has yet to be paid the amounts he is due under arbitrator Vaughn’s holdings.
CAA Initiates Court Action And Dogra Countersues
On November 5, 2018, CAA filed a Complaint in the Eastern District of Missouri to vacate the opinions and awards of arbitrator Vaughn. On November 21, Dogra answered the Complaint and filed a counterclaim against CAA.
Dogra, in his counterclaim, asks for the federal court to confirm and enforce the arbitrator’s prior opinions, as the parties previously agreed in the employment agreement that any award or decision issued by an arbitrator be final and binding on the parties. He also requests the court impose a 9% post-award interest rate on monies past due.
The breakdown of monies that Dogra believes to be owed to him by CAA, pre-imposition of interest, is roughly $2.76 million from coaching revenue, $3.9 million from player contract revenues for the 2013 NFL season, $2.98 million from player contract revenues for the 2014 NFL season, $1.31 million from player contract revenues for the 2015 NFL season, $985,000 in marketing fees and a separate $582,500 in Robert Griffin III marketing fees.
With interest included in the calculation, Dogra is asking the court to award him a grand total of $12.52 million from CAA. The amount stated does not include player contract revenues for the 2016 and 2017 NFL season, which Dogra says he will seek in the future. Dogra also leaves open the opportunity to increase amounts due and owing based on an audit process that has commenced.