Former NFL Player Sues NFLPA for ERISA Violation

On May 22, 2018, Christopher Hudson, a former Jacksonville Jaguar, Chicago Bear, and Atlanta Falcon safety, filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL Management Council, the National Football League Players Association, and the retirement board (defendants), alleging that a class of players suffering from various injuries were denied crucial information on how to request disability benefits under their retirement plan. Hudson’s lawsuit seeks recovery, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), for a class of players who were beneficiaries of the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan.

According to the complaint, the defendants failed to fairly administer, and to make proper disclosure of, important information about the retirement plan. According to the complaint, the defendants failed to inform the class of players about the danger they faced in seeking benefits without first having a clear and complete medical diagnosis and league counsel. Finally, the defendants breached their duty to the class of players by adopting undisclosed interpretations of key terms within the retirement plan , which they did not reveal that the terms had a particular interpretation until the very end of the administrative process, and the defendants even expressly discouraged players from consulting with legal counsel prior to initiating a claim.

As a result of the defendants actions, a player who sought an initial classification for benefits was not told that by doing so, he would jeopardize his ability to seek a different classification. The benefits and level of compensation that a former player could receive largely depended in part on whether a player’s injuries were sustained as a result of playing in the NFL or after the player retired. When a player was injured determined which category of disability benefits applied to each player. However, once a player was placed in a specific disability category, it became nearly impossible to be reclassified under a new category unless a player could show “changed circumstances” through “clear and convincing evidence.” For example, Hudson was in the “football degenerate” category, which applied to disabilities that arose while playing in the NFL. Hudson was awarded disability benefits until May 2011 when the retirement board determined that Hudson was no longer eligible for degenerate benefits. Hudson later learned that he had an existing disability since 2009, which would require a reclassification to a new disability category, but when Hudson sought his reclassification in 2014, the defendants denied his request without explaining its interpretation or definition of what defined a “changed circumstance.”

This is not the first time that a former NFL player has claimed that his ERISA rights were violated. For example, former cornerback Charles Dimry won his case in California federal court when he claimed that the he was denied total and permanent disability benefits. Former linebacker, Jesse Solomon, was awarded extra benefits from his retirement plan to compensate him for head trauma and other injuries suffered during his NFL career. Similarly, in 2013 former tight end, Jimmie Giles, was also awarded extra benefits from his retirement plan to compensate him for head trauma and other injuries after he became disabled within fifteen years of retiring. Not to mention other lawsuits by former safety, Gene Atkins, guard, Brent Boyd, and defensive end, Jeffrey Bryant, were also moderately successful in their ERISA claims.

On behalf of himself and the class, Hudson brought his suit to “end this practice in order to require the [defendants] to make proper disclosures so that participants are fully informed about the standards and requirements when they seek benefit under the plan.”

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