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Miami Dolphins Hazing Investigation: What If Jonathan Martin Sues?

The NFL is investigating the abuse and harassment of Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin, announcing Wednesday that attorney Ted Wells will lead the investigation.

According to the Miami Herald, Wells' investigation will conclude with a report to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before the results are eventually released to the public.

How would an internal investigation affect a possible lawsuit by Jonathan Martin?

Incognito Hazing Investigation

The seeds of the investigation were sown earlier this week, when the Miami Dolphins suspended the alleged culprit, Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, to evaluate Martin's claims of racially charged harassment.

To their credit, both the Dolphins and the NFL have disavowed the alleged behavior as contrary to their harassment policies, which the NFL had recently re-emphasized in April.

As the Herald relates, Wells has experience in investigating other professional athletes for allegations of harassment, including claims of sexual harassment in Syracuse's basketball program.

Martin's Possible Suit

Although this investigation into Martin's claims is intended to root out the issues within the team and remedy them, the Dolphins may also hope that this review will discourage Martin from proceeding with legal action against the team.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, private employers like the NFL and the Miami Dolphins can be held responsible for discrimination or harassment based on race that occurs in the workplace.

An employer may defend themselves from the conduct of someone in a non-supervisory role -- like alleged abuser Richie Incognito -- if the employer can prove that there was an anti-discrimination and harassment policy in place. Part of proving the effectiveness of this policy is showing that complaints are taken seriously, investigated, and handled appropriately.

As an additional incentive to make this case go away, Florida law also provides a civil cause of action for discrimination or harassment based on race -- one that can provide treble damages (i.e., three times the plaintiff's proven financial losses) from the harasser (in this case, Incognito) in a successful discrimination claim.

To be successful under this state law, Martin's allegations must be established by clear and convincing evidence.

If Wells investigation reveals that the alleged harassment existed, and the Dolphins and NFL offer some discipline or remediation to correct the problem, they may be able to shield themselves from liability.

In the meantime, the Herald reports that Wells has "full authority" from the NFL to conduct his investigation, with no "specific timetable."

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