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Attorney: NLRB plans to file complaint against UFC in Leslie Smith case

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Leslie Smith was released from the UFC earlier this year.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Leslie Smith got some very positive news this week in regards to her labor case against the UFC.

Region 4 of the National Labor Relations Board has made a determination that her claims have merit and will be filing a complaint against the UFC barring a settlement, Smith’s attorney Lucas Middlebrook told MMA Fighting on Friday.

Middlebrook said the NLRB investigator determined that there was a merit to their case, which claims that UFC fighters are employees — not independent contractors — and that Smith was discriminated against when the UFC released her.

“In this initial step, this is the best-case scenario, that the NLRB will have investigated the charge and determined that there was enough merit to file a complaint and prosecute the charge on behalf of Leslie,” Middlebrook said.

An NLRB spokesperson told MMA Fighting that the board could not comment on anything more than what’s on its official online docket. A request for comment from UFC outside law firm Morgan Lewis was not immediately returned Friday afternoon.

Middlebrook said the NLRB investigator informed him that the complaint will be filed in about a month. The UFC will then get a chance to respond, there will be a discovery period (like in a trial) and then a hearing in front of an administrative law judge in Philadelphia, where Region 4 is based. Middlebrook said he doesn’t expect any hearing to happen before late fall. There is also a chance for the UFC to enter into a settlement agreement with the NLRB and Smith, he said.

“I believe once the evidence is presented in a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, I believe at a minimum a determination will be made that the fighters are statutory employees,” said Middlebrook, a New York labor attorney who represents the likes of the NBA referees union. “But I also believe that a determination will be made that by their conduct that they violated the [National Labor Relations Act] when they released Leslie.”

The UFC parted ways with Smith in April in somewhat strange fashion. She was supposed to face Aspen Ladd at UFC Atlantic City, but Ladd missed weight. When Smith learned she would still be paid even if she did not fight an overweight opponent, she attempted to negotiate a new contract with the UFC, saying she would fight if the promotion extended her. The Ladd fight would be the last bout on her deal.

Smith says the UFC rejected her pitch to re-sign and instead gave her the show money and win bonus for the Ladd fight and considered their contractual obligations with her to be over. The UFC has not commented publicly on this, but reports have stated that the promotion has a different version of events than Smith does.

In May, Smith filed an unfair labor charge against the UFC with the NLRB. Smith is the president of Project Spearhead, the group attempting to organize fighters to sign authorization cards with the goal being to determine whether UFC athletes are actually employees, rather than independent contractors. Her charge is centered around the claim that the UFC let her go in retaliation for her labor efforts. Smith has won three of her last four fights with the only loss coming against Cris Cyborg, the best women’s fighter of all-time.

Middlebrook said these kinds of cases happen with the NLRB almost on a daily basis, but this is the first time anyone has challenged the UFC in this manner.

“If you look at the statistics, thousands and thousands of charges are filed each year with the NLRB and merit determinations are made,” Middlebrook said. “You just don’t hear about it, because typically they are not high-profile cases. But a lot of work went into presenting the NLRB with evidence and also refuting the UFC’s claims as to why it was not discriminatory. And in the end, the evidence that was presented convinced Region 4 that Leslie’s charge had merit.”