The following article was written by Benjamin Haynes, Esq.
In 2008, former Tennessee Titan Pro-Bowl lineman Bruce Matthews filed a workers compensation claim against the NFL Management Council (NFLMC). Bruce alleged that he suffered pain and disability from injuries incurred during his career as a professional football player. Matthews v. Nat’l Football League Mgmt. Council, (9th Cir. Aug. 6, 2012). Matthews filed his claim in California, which was contrary to a provision in Matthews’s employment contract. In Bruce’s employment contract, there is a clause expressly stating that any and all workers compensation claims would be decided under the law of the state of Tennessee. The Titans and the NFLMC filed a grievance against Matthews, and pursuant to the CBA, the parties arbitrated their dispute.
At the arbitration, the arbitrator found that “the choice of law clause in Matthews’ employment contract constituted a ‘promise to resolve workers compensation claims under Tennessee law’ and that by filing workers’ compensation claim under California law, Matthews was in violation of the agreement.” Id. Further, the arbitrator ordered Matthews to cease and desist from seeking California benefits. Id.
After the arbitration award was handed down, Matthews brought suit to vacate the arbitration award in federal district court. In January 2011, the district court denied Matthews’ motion to vacate the award and granted the Defendants’ cross-motion to confirm the award. Matthews then appealed.
When two parties have agreed to arbitrate issues that arise under a contract, a court will be extremely reluctant in vacating an arbitrator’s award. “Because federal labor policy strongly favors the resolution of labor disputes through arbitration, judicial scrutiny of an arbitrator’s decision is extremely limited. United Food & Commercial Workers Int’l Union, Local 588 v. Foster Poultry Farms, 74 F.3d 169, 173 (9th Cir. 1995). However, a court will vacate an arbitrator’s award in certain instances. Specifically, a court will vacate an award when an arbitrator’s award is contrary to public policy. “A court in fact cannot, enforce an award which violated public policy.” Stead Motors v. Auto Machinists Lodge No. 1173, 886 F.2d 1200, 1209 (9th Cir.1989).
Specifically, in order for a court to vacate an award on public policy grounds, the court, 1) must find that an explicit, well defined and dominant public policy exists, and 2) that the policy is one that specifically militates against the relief ordered by the arbitrator. Id.
California Public Policy
Matthews argued that California has a public policy against agreements that waive an employee’s right to seek California workers’ compensation benefits before a California court, no matter how tenuous the connection between California and the employee or the employment. Id. Further, Matthews argued that this policy was found in California’s workers’ compensation statute. The specific statute states “No contract, rule, or regulation shall exempt the employer from liability for the compensation fixed by the workers’ compensation statute. See Cal. Labor Code § 5000. Further, Matthews relied on an old 1934 California case, which held “that the statutory predecessor to § 5000 of the California Labor Code barred an employer from using a contractual choice of law clause to prevent an employee from receiving workers’ compensation benefits under California law. Alaska Packers Ass’n v. Industrial Accident Commission, 1 Cal. 2d 250, 260 (Cal 1934).
The court found that Matthew’s was reading California’s public policy too broadly. While Matthews was arguing that the policy guarantees a “universal” right to seek workers’ compensation benefits in California, the court found that the public policy was implemented for two reasons:
- An employee who is otherwise eligible for California benefits cannot be deemed to have contractually waived those benefits; and
- An employer who is otherwise liable for California benefits cannot evade liability through contract. See Cal. Labor Code Statute 3600(a)(1) (Emphasis added).
The court further discussed the Alaska Packers case , stating that the choice of law clause in that case was unenforceable under California public policy but only after finding that the employment relationship had sufficient contacts with California to apply the workers’ compensation law. Id.
The court then referenced the Pacific Employers case. This case held that “California workers compensation law covers an employee who suffers a discrete injury in California, at least where the costs associated with the employee’s injury may impact California’s medical system and other resources. Id. Therefore, the court found that “If Matthews had suffered an injury requiring medical treatment while playing a game in California, Pacific Employers would appear to foreclose enforcement of the Tennessee choice of law clause in his employment contract.” Id.
This is where Matthews’ claim failed in the court’s eyes. Matthews claimed that he was injured in various locations during his long career. He never alleged any specific injury in California or that he suffered any discrete injury in California. During Matthews’ career, he played a total of 13 games in California, but never stated specific injury during his time there.
While Matthews further alleged that his games in California contributed to his injuries, it was not clear that he falls within the category of employees to whom workers compensation extends. Id. (emphasis added). “Because of our highly limited and deferential standard of review of arbitration awards, it must be clear that Matthews is within the category of injured employees to which California workers compensation law extends. Id. (Emphasis added).
While Matthews was denied his workers’ compensation claim in California, this case has shed light on this issue and has provided sufficient knowledge for future litigants who want to bring a workers compensation claim in California. Matthews didn’t fail because the choice of law in his contract stated the law was to be governed in Tennessee, but he failed because he did not claim a sufficient and distinct injury arising in California, which would have then implemented California public policy.
Therefore, in the future, if a former NFL player can show that he suffered a distinct and concrete injury in California, he may be able to override both the choice of law clause in his contract, as well as vacate an arbitrator’s award, all because of the California public policy enumerated above. However, as shown in the holding in the Matthews case, public policy will not be implemented unless one can show that they have suffered specific injury in the state.
Look for a future case where an NFL player is in a similar situation that Matthews was, but states with particularity an injury occurred in the state of California. Then, a California court may have a different holding and grant a workers compensation claim from a former player.