No California Workers’ Comp for Former Bears

     CHICAGO (CN) – Three former Chicago Bears players must face an arbitration award entered against them and may not file workers compensation claims in California, a federal judge ruled.
     In 2009 and 2010, former Bears players Michael Haynes, Joe Odom, and Cameron Worrell filed claims for workers’ compensation benefits pursuant to the California Workers’ Compensation Act.
     The Chicago Bears and the NFL filed a grievance, alleging that the players violated their individual contracts by pursuing their claims in California rather than Illinois. The matter proceeded to arbitration, where the arbitrator found that the contracts provided that all workers’ compensation claims be decided pursuant to Illinois law.
     In April 2011, the Bears and NFL filed a motion to enforce the arbitration decision. The players and NFL Players Association filed a motion to vacate the award.
     U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo confirmed the arbitration award and dismissed all of the players’ claims.
     Bucklo emphasized that the judicial review of arbitration awards is extremely limited and that the court is limited to reviewing only one of the defendants’ claims, which is whether the award contravenes public policy.
     “While I review this narrow issue without deference, I am bound to accept the arbitrator’s interpretation of the agreements, as well as her legal and factual conclusions,” the court said.
     However, Bucklo expressed significant reservations about both parties’ discussion of California as a proper forum for the players’ claims.
     “Although both sides devote numerous pages to the question of whether California does, or does not, have an explicit, well-defined, and dominant public policy that is inconsistent with the award, neither side addresses that strikes me as an obvious threshold question: why is California’s public policy relevant at all?” she said (italics in original).
     “I am left to wonder why, indeed, we are concerned with the public policy of California,” Bucklo said, after noting that the Chicago Bears are located in Illinois, the players played football primarily in Illinois, and that the contracts were signed in Illinois and contain an exclusive Illinois choice-of forum provision.
     “In short, because defendants have not established any basis for concluding that the agreements must conform to the public policy of California, their argument that the award should be vacated as contrary to that public policy rings hollow,” she continued.
     The court also rejected the players’ argument that the choice-of-forum restriction within the contracts is unconstitutional. “Illinois – the state, once again, whose law governs the totality of the parties’ employment relationship – may constitutionally apply its own law in view of its legitimate interests in the case, which the arbitrator determined were materially greater than California’s,” Bucklo said.”The arbitrator did not defy the Constitution by conducting the enforceability analysis through the lens of Illinois law,” the court concluded.

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