Update: Garcia-Tatupu v. NFL Player Retirement Plan

On June 8, 2018, the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan and the NFL Player Supplemental Disability Plan (defendants), an ERISA-governed multiemployer pension plan which provides retirement and disability benefits to eligible NFL players and their beneficiaries, asked the First Circuit not to reverse the lower court decision that the NFL’s retirement board properly denied claims made by the ex-wife of a late New England Patriots player, Mosiula F. “Mosi” Tatupu.

As we have previously covered, more than four years after his 2010 death, the family of Tatupu learned that the former running back and special team’s player suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive head injuries such as those sustained by football players. In June 2016, Linnea Garcia-Tatupu, Tatupu’s ex-wife, sued the defendants alleging that an administrator “wrongfully denied” her request for pension and/or survivor benefits following the death of her ex-husband. Garcia-Tatupu and Tatupu were married in 1978, but the two later divorced in 1997. A part of their 1997 marital separation agreement read, “[a]t the time of Mosiula F. Tatupu’s retirement and decision to draw pension benefits as may be available to him by virtue of his employment with the National Football League from 1978 through and including 1991, Mosiula F. Tatupu, shall pay to Linnea Garcia Tatupu one-third (1/3) of the net benefit he receives from said pension benefit plan.”

In 2005, Tatupu elected to receive a portion of his pension in the form of a lump-sum, “early payment benefit.” Records indicate that Tatupu honored the terms of the 1997 agreement and turned over one-third of his early payment to Garcia-Tatupu. Tatupu then was set to receive the rest of his pension in monthly installment payments. However, he died on February 23, 2010 before receiving the remainder of his pension. In her brief filled on May 8, 2018, Garcia-Tatupu argued that the state court domestic relations order (DRO) that she received, required the Plan to award her 100 percent of Tatupu’s accrued benefit. However, in February 2012, the retirement board (the defendants administrator) did not honor DRO as a qualified domestic relations order for a variety of reasons, including that it would require the defendants to provide increased benefits to Garcia-Tatupu in violation of ERISA. On June 16, 2016, Garcia-Tatupu filed a complaint alleging that the defendants “wrongfully denied” her pension benefits that she was entitled to following Tatupu’s death.

On November 1, 2017, the District Court entered judgment a judgement in favor of the defendants. The court held that the 2011 DRO could not be enforced because it “has the effect of increasing benefits beyond what was contemplated by [the defendants]” in violation of ERISA. Garcia-Tatupu has since appealed the ruling. In their brief, the defendants argue that Garcia-Tatupu waived all of her arguments on appeal after failing to squarely raise them before the district court. Further, the 2011 DRO “is unenforceable because it would require the plan to provide increased benefits in violation of ERISA.

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