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Leslie Smith to file appeal after dismissal of NLRB complaint

UFC 198 Media Day
Leslie Smith
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Leslie Smith will appeal the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to dismiss her complaint against the UFC.

Last month, the NLRB officially ruled to dismiss Smith’s charge that the UFC acted in violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Her charge was based on the notion that the promotion unfairly released her from her contract after she would not fight opponent Aspen Ladd at UFC Atlantic City on April 21.

Ladd came in 1.8 pounds over the contracted weight for their bout and Smith would have only met Ladd at a catchweight if the UFC had extended her contract. After further deliberation, the Smith vs. Ladd bout was removed from the April 21 card, Smith was paid her win and show money, and then Smith’s UFC contract was subsequently terminated.

According to Smith’s attorney Lucas Middlebrook, the UFC had no legitimate grounds to release her and that she was in fact discriminated against due to her involvement with Project Spearhead, an organization working to create a more even playing field in negotiations between fighters and the UFC. The initial complaint brought forth and later determined to have merit by Region 4 of the NLRB alleged that the UFC’s decision to release Smith was “based on the animus it held toward her engagement in protected activity.”

However, per documents obtained by MMA Fighting’s Marc Raimondi, on Sept. 19 NLRB regional director Dennis P. Walsh responded on behalf of the NLRB General Counsel and informed Middlebrook that a decision was made to dismiss due to the counsel determining that the charge in question lacked merit.

According to Walsh’s statement, the counsel found no wrongdoing on behalf of the UFC, citing “insufficient evidence to establish that the UFC’s failure to renew (Smith’s) contract in April 2018 was based on any protected activities. Rather, there is significant evidence suggesting that the breakdown in contract negotiations in April 2018 occurred for nondiscriminatory reasons related to her demands.”

A key part of Smith’s complaint involved her ongoing mission to question the employment status of UFC fighters; she believes that fighters are employees of the organization and should receive protections and benefits as such, but the UFC has always designated its fighters as independent contractors.

Walsh’s statement declares that Smith’s complaint is not reason enough for the NLRB to look further into that issue.

“Because I find no unlawful discrimination, I find it unnecessary to decide whether Smith is a statutory employee,” Walsh wrote.

The dismissal claims that the UFC satisfied Smith’s demands for the April 21 fight and in fact conducted business in a manner that benefited Smith on several occasions. Walsh’s statement cites an unspecified 2017 incident where Smith refused to take a fight and rather than be released, instead received a contract extension, the April 21 fight in which Smith was permitted to wear a “Project Spearhead-branded and pro-Union mouth guard,” and a discretionary allotment of $500 provided by the UFC to cover travel expenses for said fight.

In her appeal, which had to be submitted by Oct. 3, 2018, Smith and Middlebrook directly refuted these claims. They counter that Smith did not attempt to use the circumstances surrounding the April 21 fight to negotiate for more money or to have additional fights added to her contract — as was mentioned in the NLRB General Counsel’s investigation — nor did they ask for more than her show and win money, which Smith was entitled to under the regulations of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board.

Smith’s appeal also states that the last fight on her contract was not fulfilled due to Ladd missing weight, which should have resulted in the bout being “canceled and/or terminated.” She argued that the UFC was obligated to reschedule or terminate the bout agreement and that failure to do so meant that the promotion was obligated to honor the remaining fight on her contract. This directly refutes the dismissal letter’s claim that Smith’s contract “expired by its terms and the parties failed to reach an understanding and a new agreement.”

In regards to the 2017 incident mentioned in the dismissal letter, Smith posits that it is in reference to a proposed bout with Tonya Evinger, and if so, Smith argues that it was the UFC who chose not to book the fight after refusing to discuss “certain conditions” with Smith. She adds that the issue is irrelevant to the discussion of discriminatory actions towards Smith because she did not launch Project Spearhead until February 2018 and was not involved with any union organizing campaigns at the time. A prior working relationship with the similarly motivated Professional Fighters Association was severed in November 2016, according to Smith.

Smith does mention a May 2016 incident in which then-UFC commentator Brian Stann advised her to stop broaching the issue of unionization. She says the witness affidavit describing this exchange was ignored in the dismissal letter. According to Smith, the letter also ignored her addressing of a list of recently released fighters that the UFC provided to her as evidence that she was released for nondiscriminatory reasons.

Regarding the $500 discretionary allotment, Smith says that the UFC was legally required to compensate her travel expenses per California labor law as she was traveling from San Francisco, Calif., to Atlantic City, N.J., for the Ladd fight.

Smith also found the dismissal letter to be in error in mentioning her “Project Spearhead-branded and pro-Union mouth guard,” specifically the suggestion that the accessory would “have been visible for a national television audience.” The Smith-Ladd bout was scheduled to take place on the online-only Fight Pass portion of the April 21 card.

She flatly denies that she was ever seeking a “222% increase over her then-current contract,” which she believes “a member of the media had reported what they interpreted as a contract demand” from Smith. That figure somehow made its way to UFC officials, but Smith and her team clarified to them that it was not accurate.

Smith is demanding an in-person meeting with the Office of Appeals prior to any further decisions being rendered, and that NLRB general counsel Peter B. Robb and deputy general counsel John W. Kyle not take part in the appeal, due to their involvement in the dismissal only taking place after Region 4 had determined the complaint to have merit. Middlebrook’s letter states that Robb and Kyle “cannot serve as impartial decision-makers” as a result of those actions.

Additional reporting by Marc Raimondi

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