SBJ/May 21-27, 2012/Labor and Agents

California workers’ comp board ruling defers to ‘forum provisions’ in players’ contracts

In a ruling that could alter the sparring between the NFL and NFL Players Association over where players can file workers’ compensation claims, a California regulatory body said earlier this month that it would respect provisions of an NFL contract that specified the state in which such claims are filed.

The owners and players were unable to resolve the controversial issue last summer in reaching a new collective-bargaining agreement, leaving many workers’ compensation cases unresolved.

The NFLPA has contended in various courts that so-called “forum provisions” in player contracts requiring that players file in a specific state are unenforceable because California law trumps the provisions. Just 10 days ago the NFL filed in an Ohio federal court, suing the union among others, asking the judge to enforce an arbitrator’s decision that 36 former Cincinnati Bengals players could not file in California.

Players want to file in California because of the state’s employee-friendly laws, including the ability to collect damages even if they only played a limited number of games there. However, their contracts frequently specify that claims must be made in the team’s home state.

The California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board ruled May 1 in a case brought by former Bengals defensive end Vaughn Booker, stating “even if we were to assume that the [board] has subject matter jurisdiction, we would decline to exercise that jurisdiction here because the contract between applicant and the Bengals contains a forum selection clause requiring that he make any workers’ compensation claim exclusively in Ohio.”

That appears to run counter to an argument the NFLPA has made. The union declined to comment, but in a case pending in a Louisiana federal court, for example, the NFLPA has contended that eight former New Orleans Saints players were not bound to the forum provisions in their contracts because, “The California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board … has ruled that any provision of an employment agreement between an NFL Player and Club that purports to limit the NFL Player’s ability to pursue workers’ compensation benefits in California is void and unenforceable.”

The point, however, is being debated elsewhere. Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, representing former Tennessee Titan and hall of famer Bruce Matthews in his appeal before the 9th Circuit of a ruling requiring his claim to be adjudicated under Tennessee and not California law, told that court that just because the California board “ultimately decline(s) to exercise jurisdiction (that) does not mean … that private parties can by contract divest the WCAB of jurisdiction altogether.” The NFL told the same court, “WCAB squarely rejected the argument that a forum selection clause is a waiver of California Workers’ Compensation law. To the contrary, such provisions are valid and should be enforced if reasonable.”

John Goldman, a labor attorney with Herrick Feinstein, called the California ruling significant because it is coming from the WCAB and not a federal court.

“If anyone was going to be paternalistic with regards to California labor laws, it would be the California compensation board,” he said. “They are saying not only does this not concern us, but it does not concern us because you guys agreed it did not concern us.”

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