Former NFL Players Bring Disability Class Action

Ten players filed an 89-page complaint in Maryland federal court on Thursday, stating that they were denied fair evaluation for disability plan claims. They allege that former injured players who applied for the Player Disability & Survivor Benefit Plan and NFL Player Disability & Neurocognitive Benefit Plan were arbitrarily denied funds, and those who did receive funding were shorted full compensation. The players are looking for damages, an explanation from the league, and a change to the process.

NFL players have few options for retirement compensation after being severely injured. Players who are hurt while playing should be eligible for some form of workers compensation, depending on the state they live in. While workers compensation is important, and more than what college athletes would receive, it does little for an athlete who may have made significant financial commitments prior to his injury. Many players are left to rely on the league’s benefit programs to supplement their income in retirement. The NFL offers multiple programs, including a severance pay program, a tuition assistance program, a deferred compensation plan, and a player disability program.[1] Many players who sustained long term significant injuries rely on the disability program to sustain themselves and their families for a time. 

There are multiple eligibility criteria before a player may receive compensation under the NFL’s disability plan. Players must sign a release of future claims against the league, not be receiving other pension benefits, receive a finding of “disabled” from a neutral physician, and receive approval from a league panel. Players who are deemed permanently disabled are eligible for lifetime payments, assuming their disability persists for life. Players who are deemed to suffer from a neurocognitive disability are eligible for payments for 15 years.[2]

Former players claim they were wrongly denied this important lifeline by doctors who refused to recognize their status as disabled. The complaint details the stories of multiple players who were denied benefits. Former Buffalo Bills running back Willis McGahee applied for total disability benefits in 2016. McGahee was evaluated by multiple specialists who all found that despite serious mental and physical issues – including “clinically significant depression” and an inability to carry out daily tasks – McGahee was not eligible for disability benefits. McGahee attempted to appeal the finding, but he was again denied. 

Former Buffalo Bills first round pick Willis McGahee is one of ten plaintiffs in the suit – Image from the Gainsville Sun

The NFL has faced challenges to disability decisions in the past. The complaint cites twelve incidents where federal courts have reversed arbitrary and unreasonable denials. Some of the decisions include findings of bad faith on the part of the board and potential violations of its fiduciary duty towards players.

The suit claims that the “neutral” doctors may be financially motivated against finding for players. Allegedly, doctors who were more likely to find players eligible for benefits were paid less than $60,000, and doctors who were more find players ineligible were regularly paid upwards of $200,000. Some doctors, like neurologist Dr. Barry McCasland, were paid over a million dollars. Samples of McCasland’s findings showed he had not found one player to be disabled and eligible for benefits.

Major injuries have gained more airtime than ever this year in the NFL in the wake of Damar Hamlin’s major injury. A recent New York Times piece pointed out that Damar’s situation may shine a light on a corner of the NFL that is often unreported on. There are thousands of players who currently receive benefits and many more who are denied. There is also a category of players, like Damar, who are eligible for very few benefits because they have spent only a few years in the league. Players like this may suffer a major injury, lose out on their rookie contract, and still be ineligible for disability benefits. The media attention around Damar prompted the NFL and the Buffalo Bills to pay his full contract, and to guarantee that he would be taken care of in the future. However, this is not the case for many other players facing a similar situation.[3]

The plaintiffs seek multiple forms of resolution from the court. The complaint requests granting the full value of benefits to all players who qualify, restitution, reformation of the disability plan, a finding that the NFL violated its fiduciary duty, and that the most offending doctors be released and replaced.[4] The class is still waiting to be certified, but it could represent all players who were denied or shorted benefits by the league. Legal counsel on the case includes the firm Seeger Weiss, which was part of the class action team that achieved the prior concussion settlement against the NFL.[5]






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