Appeals Court Rules the NFL Doesn’t Have to Play Nice with Mean Gene Atkins on Disability Claims
On September 11, 2012, a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Nation Football League would not be required to extend “extra retirement disability benefits” to “Mean” Gene Atkins. While Atkins could receive “inactive” player disability benefits, the ruling prevents him from eligibility for the more generous “football degenerative” disability benefits that the league affords retirees with football related injuries. The ruling comes despite Atkins’ insistence that his current ailments are a result of injuries suffered during his 10-year NFL career.
Atkins’ current battle began in 2010 when he sued the NFL Player Retirement Plan, the NFL Supplemental Disability Plan and the Management Trustees of the NFL Player Retirement Plan in federal court in Austin, Texas, alleging that his shoulder, head, beck, arms and hand pain, as well as various mental ailments, were a result of his NFL playing time in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Atkins had previously filed suit in 2008, but abandoned the action after seeking the additional benefits from the league through arbitration. The arbitration panel decided that Atkins should only be eligible for a lesser form of NFL retiree benefits after a clinical neuropsychologist “concluded that Atkins suffered from illiteracy, borderline mental ability and depression,” but insisted that these ailments could not be tied to his football career.
The Circuit Court ruling comes as little surprise given the traditionally high level of deference that courts are willing to afford arbitration decisions. Writing for the court, Judge Edith Brown Clement stated “[n]either the delay in Atkins receiving a final decision nor the use of an arbitrator rises to the level of a flagrant violation or utter disregard of the [disability] play that might require a heightened standard of review,” ultimately upholding the arbitrator’s denial of benefits to Atkins.