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Bruce Matthews Loses NFL Lawsuit, Cal Workers' Comp Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Bruce Matthews played football in the National Football League (NFL) for 19 years, first for the Houston Oilers and later for its successor team, the Tennessee Titans (Titans). He retired in 2002. In 2008, Matthews filed for workers’ compensation benefits in California.

Matthews claimed pain and disability resulting from injuries incurred while he was employed by the NFL at “various” locations over years of “playing and practicing professional football.” He didn’t allege that he sustained any particular injury in California.

The Titans and the National Football League Management Council (NFLMC) responded to Matthews' workers comp claim with a grievance. They argued that by applying for workers' compensation benefits in California, Matthews breached his employment agreement, which provided that all workers' compensation claims would be decided under Tennessee law. Everyone headed to binding arbitration -- pursuant to a clause in the NFL collective bargaining agreement -- to resolve the dispute.

The arbitrator concluded that the choice of law clause in Matthews' contract constituted a "promise to resolve workers compensation claims under Tennessee law" and that Matthews violated the agreement by pursuing workers' compensation under California law. The arbitrator ordered Matthews to "cease and desist" from seeking California benefits. Matthews filed an NFL lawsuit to vacate the arbitration award.

That didn't work out so well for him. The district court denied Matthews' motion to vacate the arbitration award. Monday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

Arbitration awards are ordinarily upheld so long as they represent a plausible interpretation of the contract. There's a narrow exception for arbitration awards that are contrary to public policy, but to vacate an arbitration award on public policy grounds, a court must find "that an explicit, well defined and dominant public policy exists, and "that the policy is one that specifically militates against the relief ordered by the arbitrator."

Here, Matthews argued that the arbitration award contravened California workers' compensation policy. But that can only be true if his contract was subject to California law.

For Matthews' contract to be subject to California law, he had to prove that his employment relationship had sufficient contacts with California to apply California's workers' compensation law. The problem, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is that Matthews wasn't entitled to worker's comp in the state.

At a minimum, Matthews needed to allege a discrete injury in California, at least where the costs associated with his injury could impact California's medical system and other resources. If Matthews had suffered an injury requiring medical treatment while playing a game in California, the state's precedent "would appear to foreclose enforcement of the Tennessee choice of law clause in his employment contract."

As previously mentioned, Matthews didn't make that argument. Instead, he pointed to the cumulative toll that football took on his body, and suggested that some of that must have occurred in the Golden State. That wasn't enough for the Ninth Circuit to entertain his NFL lawsuit.

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