NFL, Players Association Face Class Action Lawsuit Over Players’ Retirement Plan, Concussions

The National Football League (NFL), the National Football League Players Association, and members of the board of the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan are being sued by a former NFL player who claims that the board breached its fiduciary duty to him in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and seeks class action status to include other players and former players who might also have been harmed.

Chris Hudson played for the NFL from 1995 until 2003 in the position of safety. He claims that, over the course of his career, he “sustained numerous hits to the head,” according to the complaint.  

Two years after retirement Hudson began to suffer from headaches, dizziness, ringing in the years and blurred vision. By 2008 these conditions worsened and he also began experiencing increased anxiety, poor decision making, restlessness, sleep problems, trouble concentrating, social withdrawal, memory problems, increased headaches and sensitivity to light.

Under the NFL retirement plan participants are eligible for several categories of benefits including total and permanent disability benefits as well as football degenerative benefits.

Hudson’s initial application for disability benefits was denied by the retirement board in 2010, according to the complaint. He filed an appeal, was given additional testing, and the board awarded him total and permanent disability benefits in May 2011, finding that he was “severely depressed” and “experienced cognitive impairments attributable to non-League related mood disorder.” The decision included a determination that Hudson was not eligible for football degenerative benefits.

Thereafter, Hudson applied for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration (SSA), which found that he was disabled as of December 31, 2009. He then applied to the retirement board to reclassify his benefits from total and permanent to football degenerative. He was not represented by counsel in this process.

In his request for reclassification, Hudson argued that the finding by the SSA that he was disabled provided “clear and convincing evidence” of “changed circumstances” within the meaning of the retirement plan. The board denied his request, but notified him of his right to appeal and provide additional documentation to support his request.

In May 2015 the board issued its final decision denying Hudson’s request, finding that he had failed to meet its “changed circumstances” requirement. The ruling stated that the board interpreted “‘changed circumstances’ requirement to mean a change in [p]layer’s physical condition — such as a new or different impairment — that warrants a different category of benefits.”

Hudson claims that the final denial provided him with the only time the board explained what it meant by “changed circumstances,” an interpretation he was unaware of and that he had simply relied on the plain meaning of the words.

Noting that ERISA requires that board members of ERISA-covered plans have a fiduciary duty to the plan’s participants to act in their best interests, Hudson argues that, by not providing him with their interpretation of “changed circumstances” until its final ruling, the board breached that duty.

In addition, ERISA and federal regulations require retirement plans to “be written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant” and to “ be sufficiently accurate and comprehensive to reasonably apprise such participants . . . of their rights and obligations under the plan.”

In March 2018 the board sent out modifications to the retirement plan that included a modified definition of “changed circumstances.” When Hudson’s attorney wrote to the board to ask if this new definition would apply retroactively to Hudson’s pro se request for modification, he was advised that the board does not provide advisory opinions.

The suit seeks to add all participants in the retirement plan who also might have sought reclassification without the benefit of the board’s interpretation of key phrases used to make a final determination on the reclassification request and to whom the board had a fiduciary duty that might have been breached.

The suit was brought by Robert Harwood of New York City who filed the action in the Southern District of New York.

Image Source: Josh Hallett (Flickr)