Tuesday, June 14, 2011

States Rights Subject to Contract - A Dangerous Precedent

While the National Football League and its players appear to be headed towards a stand off for the 2011-12 season, one thing that I find interesting is the issue of workers' compensation in contract talks.

Workers' compensation has become a volatile talking point in professional athletics primarily because most states traditionally permit the filing of claims where there is even just a scintilla of nexus between injury and venue.

Now in response to team complaints there are a few states which are trying to limit choice of law (Florida and Louisiana namely), and the NFL explicitly is attempting to do so with its collective bargaining agreements.

The Players' Association (NFLPA) argues that neither the NFL, nor any state, can inhibit the filing of claims in a state other than the home state of the team where a state permits such claims so long as it can be shown that there is some aspect of injury that occurred in the state. California is one of those states and apparently is a favorite among professional athletes seeking compensation due to a relatively more liberal system.

The issue is before the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit after the Tennessee Titans won a ruling before the US District Court for the Southern California district. The player in the case, Bruce Mathews, and the NFLPA have appealed and the case is pending.

The issue is an interesting one to us legal wonks as there is an old US Supreme Court case, Alaska Packers v. IAC (1935) that stands for the principle that a state has the right to assert jurisdiction over a legal dispute, when it is trying to protect public safety and employees within its borders. This means that parties cannot contract around that state's authority in an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement.

The California Workers' Compensation Appeals Board has held for many years that such attempts to limit its jurisdiction are illegal and unenforceable. This position has been upheld in state courts, but has not been tested in federal courts until now.

This may seem elemental to some, but the bigger picture in this day and age of seemingly expanding federal authority over the states is whether state sovereignty will be honored, or another element of independence is lifted from state rights.

And in the broader scope of general employment agreements, can contracts divest an employee of state guaranteed rights?

Most attempts to limit injured workers' access to remedies occur at the state legislative level. Getting the federal judiciary involved in the process blazes a new, and perhaps unwanted, trail into state versus federal authority and represents, in my opinion, a potentially dangerous precedent towards the erosion of state rights.

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