NFL Management, Union Sued Over Brain Injury Benefits

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By Carmen Castro-Pagan

A former NFL player sued the league’s management council, the players’ union, and the retirement board, alleging that he and others with head injuries were denied crucial information on how to request disability benefits.

The NFL Management Council, which represents teams in collective bargaining, the NFL Players Association, and the Retirement Board of the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan violated federal benefits law, Christopher Hudson charged in a lawsuit filed May 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The retirement board is the disability plan administrator for the National Football League.

Hudson seeks to represent at least 3,716 retired or separated players covered by the plan.

The two nonprofits failed to disclose and inform players disabled by football-related head trauma of the perils of seeking benefits without first having a clear diagnosis and league counsel, he alleges in the lawsuit.

The entities breached their duties under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act by adopting certain interpretations of plan terms that are contrary to the language in the summary plan description, according to the charges. The council and association also are accused of discouraging players from engaging legal counsel in their initial disability benefit claims.

Not Isolated Lawsuit

In recent years, NFL players have been very active litigating over their rights to ERISA-covered disability and retirement benefits.

Earlier this year, former cornerback Charles Dimry convinced a federal judge in California that the league’s retirement plan was wrong when it denied him total and permanent disability benefits.

Last year, former linebacker Jesse Solomon was awarded extra benefits from the league’s plan to account for head trauma and other injuries he suffered over a nine-season career.

Former NFL tight end Jimmie Giles scored a similar victory against the league plan in 2013, when a federal judge in Maryland agreed that Giles became disabled within 15 years of retiring. Similar lawsuits by former safety Gene Atkins, guard BrentBoyd, and defensive end Jeffrey Bryant were less successful.

Cut the Jargon, Player Says

At issue in the latest lawsuit is the plan’s language on disability benefits. The benefits and level of compensation received depend in part on whether a player’s injuries were sustained as a result of playing in the league or afterward.

Hudson, who played safety during his eight-year career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears, and Atlanta Falcons, retired in 2003.

Among other remedies, he wants the board to be required to revise the summary plan description to explain “clear and convincing evidence” and “changed circumstances” in understandable language, not jargon, using clarifying examples and illustrations.

The NFL Players Association didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment. Bloomberg also reached out to the management council, which also didn’t immediately reply.

Block & Leviton LLP, Donati Law PLLC, and Glancy Prongay & Murray LLP represent Hudson and the proposed class.

The case is Hudson v. Nat’l Football League Mgmt. Council, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:18-cv-04483, complaint filed 5/21/18.

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