The Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday retained two prominent attorneys with expertise in jury trials and gay rights, while the lawyer for former punter Chris Kluwe announced an Aug. 6 meeting that could head off a lawsuit against the team.
Kluwe and his attorney, Clayton Halunen, have threatened to sue for more than $10 million because the Vikings refused to make public its complete 150-page report into allegations that special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer used anti-gay language. The report concluded that Priefer did use such language, and he has been suspended for the first three games of the regular season.
The Vikings hired Ted Wells and Roberta Kaplan, partners at a New York City law firm. Earlier this year, Wells provided the NFL with a report on an atmosphere of bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room. Kaplan is best known for her landmark casework in the U.S. Supreme Court opposing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred legally married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.
The two will work with local attorney Joe Anthony, whom the team retained last week.
The moves came before Friday’s expiration of an agreement that no suit would be filed for six months. Halunen said both sides are working to extend that agreement beyond the Aug. 6 meeting, which will be the first time Kluwe and his attorney have met with Vikings management since July 17. That was the day before the team released its 29-page summary of the report.
When told that the Vikings were retaining Wells and Kaplan, Halunen said he hopes it shows the team is serious and wants “this wrapped up in a way that’s beneficial to everyone.”
“Because they were involved in the Miami Dolphins case and that report became public. I’m hoping that’s the same reason they brought them on board to advise them in this case,” he said.
But in a later interview Tuesday, Halunen said he has some suspicions about the moves related to Kaplan’s recognition within the LGBT community.
“I think it’s very convenient at this stage [that] ... they’re bringing in someone from the community,” Halunen said. “It sounds to me like a strategy to obtain public support, because the LGBT community has been outspoken about ... the refusal to make the report public.”
Stating their cases
Kluwe, who said Tuesday that he will decline to comment until after the Aug. 6 meeting, has alleged that the Vikings should have released the full investigation into his claims about what he calls the team’s culture of discrimination. Kluwe and Halunen said “substantial” evidence was left out of the summary.
Kevin Warren, the Vikings’ executive vice president of legal affair and chief administrative officer, said the team “prides ourselves on the workplace environment that we have created, centered on diversity, tolerance and respect.” He said that “in sensitivity to the issues raised by Chris Kluwe and his attorney, and their potential litigation,” the team retained Kaplan, Wells and Anthony.
In a statement late Tuesday, Kaplan said she and Wells reviewed the investigative findings and believe that the Vikings have worked hard to achieve an environment of tolerance.
“While there can be no question that Ted and I are sensitive to issues of diversity and inclusion, here, there is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Kluwe was released from the Vikings for any reason other than his skills as a punter,” she said. “There also was no effort to unfairly discourage his activism while he was a member of the Vikings; to the contrary, it was encouraged by the owners of the Vikings.
“While our hope is to take a fresh look and assist the Vikings in reaching a resolution with Mr. Kluwe short of litigation, if that is not possible, we will fully defend the Vikings in court,” she said.
Kaplan most recently was recognized for successful arguments on behalf of her pro bono client Edith Windsor before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. In that case, the court ruled that a key provision of DOMA violated the U.S. Constitution by barring legally married same-sex couples from the benefits of marriage conferred under federal law. As a result of that case, at least 28 courts across the nation have held that gay couples should be accorded equal rights under the law.
Wells has extensive litigation experience in civil and corporate litigation and has been called one of the best jury trial lawyers in the United States by numerous publications. As for Anthony, for the past 15 years, he has been selected to the Minnesota “Super Lawyer” list.
Vikings officials have said they believe the team has comprehensively investigated Kluwe’s claims, put forth in a Jan. 2 article on the sports website Deadspin, that Priefer made an anti-gay comment in a team setting. Preifer’s suspension could shrink to two games after attending sensitivity training. The Vikings also have said they will donate $100,000 to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups. Kluwe had asked for $1 million.
Lawyers on lawyers
Prominent Twin Cities attorney Joe Friedberg, who is not involved in this case, said if he were to sue the Vikings, it would be for breach of contract to deliver the full report. “I can’t conceive of anything so bad that the public ought not to know,” he said.
Another prominent local lawyer, William Mauzy, said that by hiring Wells, the Vikings are sending a message that they are willing to fight Kluwe’s allegations. Mauzy noted a $7 billion settlement Wells handled this month between Citigroup and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The fact that the NFL retained Wells to investigate the Dolphins puts the [NFL’s] stamp of approval on him,” he said. “So that makes sense to hire him in this context to get a possible settlement.”