It often seems like professional athletes are above the law. Not so, however, when it comes to Workers’ Compensation. The Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) recently ruled, in Jenkins v. Minnesota Vikings that even NFL players must abide by the workers ’ compensation laws if they want to receive workers ’ compensation benefits.
On November 14, 2011, the Vikings were soundly defeated by the Green Bay Packers. During the game, wide receiver Michael Jenkins was laying on the field with his knees and legs up in the air when he was struck by a defender and suffered pain in his left knee. He received minor treatment from team doctors and was cleared to return to work. He was playing two weeks later against the Atlanta Falcons when he felt a pop in his left knee. Subsequently, an MRI revealed a complete tear of his lateral meniscus and he had surgery. He was forced to sit out the remainder of the 2011-2012 season.
Jenkins returned from surgery and played all 16 games of the 2012-2013 season, finishing with 40 receptions for 449 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was released after that season, briefly competed for a position at the Patriots training camp in 2013 and was released. He was approached by two other teams but was not cleared to play, citing medical reasons. He retired from professional football in the fall of 2013. After retirement, he spent time with his family and in February, 2015, enrolled in an executive MBA program sponsored by the NFL.
Jenkins brought a claim for wage loss benefits claiming that, as a result of his left knee injury, he was unable to work. When the claim went to hearing, Jenkins failed to provide the compensation judge with any evidence of a diligent job search. Instead, he argued that, due to his position as a professional athlete with a high average weekly wage, job search was futile and he should be entitled to ongoing temporary total disability (TTD) benefits. The compensation judge rejected this argument and found in favor of the Vikings. Jenkins appealed, presenting the same argument.
Diligent Job Search
The WCCA, however, did not accept the employee’s arguments. The Court found that the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act applies the same whether the employee is a “football player or a car mechanic.” It noted that there was no special rule preventing the employee from searching for work outside of football. Merely being a professional athlete does not prohibit work in another sector, and as such, every employee must engage in a diligent job search to be entitled to TTD benefits.
Medical Ability to Work
The Court also noted that the employee failed to provide evidence that he was medically restricted from working due to his left knee injury. It noted that Jenkins was able to play the complete 2012-2013 season. He failed to provide a doctor’s opinion specifically stating that the knee was the reason he was unable to continue playing professionally. The Court did note that his inability to medically qualify for other teams may be enough to establish the employee was unable to play football. However, merely being unable to play professional football was not enough to show that he was unable to find or perform any non-football related work.
While very few claimants can make the argument that their average weekly wage of $19,179.13 disqualifies them from looking for work, this case reinforces two long standing concepts in workers’ compensation.
First, employees who are unable to perform work in their usual and customary field, must perform a diligent job search. This diligent job search must go beyond their field and current position to any type of job the employee may be able to perform. If an employee is receiving TTD, even if they were a high wage earner or an expert in one field, they must still conduct a diligent job search or lose their entitlement to TTD. In Jenkins’ case, many former NFL players go on to secure jobs in coaching, broadcasting, speaking, or business. A high wage earning employee may also be able to secure alternative employment, simply by looking. If an employee fails to conduct the appropriate job search, claims personnel should cease their TTD benefits and file an NOID, in hopes of encouraging employees to find work.
Second, merely because an employee is medically restricted from performing some jobs, does not mean they are medically restricted from performing all jobs. Far too often, employees and doctors paint restrictions with a very broad brush. These restrictions often are based on the employee’s date of injury job and not on the employee’s future job potential. But, an employee with a broken leg could certainly find sedentary work. A car mechanic with a back injury may still be able to do sales calls. Claims personnel are encouraged to clarify restrictions and look for work within those restrictions. If an employee refuses to do so, their benefits may be denied.
When an employee is not performing a diligent job search or obtaining work within their restrictions, it is always important to obtain legal counsel to ensure proper compliance with the rules and current case law. Hansen Dordell’s expert attorneys are always available for consultation at www.hansendordell.com or 651-482-8900.
Evan W. Cordes is an associate attorney at Hansen Dordell. He joined in the fall of 2015. Evan works in the areas of workers’ compensation, personal injury, and related employment law. Having been in-house counsel at a self-insured public entity, Evan brings with him an understanding of what employers and insurers both need and want from an attorney. He works diligently to bring claims to their best resolution in a cost-effective and efficient manner for his clients.
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