Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:11 PM
Updated: 7:34 p.m. Former Washington Redskins running back Eric Shelton sued the NFL's pension plan Monday in federal court in Baltimore, seeking increased disability payments for a spinal injury he suffered from a hit to his helmet in an intrasquad scrimmage with the Redskins during training camp in the summer of 2008. Shelton, 27, receives disability payments from the plan but is seeking the increased payments that would accompany a finding that he was unable to work soon after the completion of his NFL career. His request for increased benefits was denied by the pension plan, which is administered jointly by the league and the NFL Players Association. The plan's retirement board cited Shelton's work at a pharmacy last year. The lawsuit by Shelton, who also played for the Carolina Panthers, comes at a time when the NFL is in its first full season of operating under the revised guidelines that it put in place last season for players who suffer head injuries. This season, league officials strengthened their enforcement of existing rules prohibiting hits to the helmet of a player deemed to be in a defenseless position during a game. "The NFL has been very public on this issue," Shelton's attorney, Cy Smith, said in a telephone interview Monday. "That's what they say. But what do they do when one of these players seeks benefits for the effects of one of these hits?" Smith said that Shelton currently receives disability payments of approximately $100,000 per year and is seeking to increase those payments to about $200,000 annually. Douglas W. Ell, an attorney for the pension plan, said in a written statement that Shelton currently receives the proper level of compensation for his injury and is not entitled, under the parameters of the plan, to the increased payments he's seeking. "Last August, the plan's Retirement Board unanimously found Mr. Shelton to be totally and permanently disabled as a result of NFL football activities, including a helmet blow sustained during a July 2008 scrimmage with the Washington Redskins," Ell said in a statement. "As a result, Mr. Shelton is currently receiving total and permanent disability ('TP) benefits of $110,000 per year. "The plan has four different categories of full TPbenefits. The lawsuit requests that Mr. Shelton be placed in the highest category, which in part applies where a player is unable to work immediately following his NFL career. Mr. Shelton worked at a pharmacy until April 2009." Shelton was drafted by the Panthers in 2005 and signed with the Redskins in January 2008. His lawsuit says that he was injured when he received a helmet-to-helmet hit during a Redskins' intra-squad scrimmage on July 26, 2008, causing "a permanent and disabling narrowing of his spinal column." The lawsuit says that Shelton "has suffered continuously since July 26, 2008 from migraine headaches, transient paralysis, transient paresthesias (abnormal feelings in his extremities), and other neurological and related disorders and has been unable to work." According to the lawsuit, Shelton lost all feeling in his extremities for about a minute following the hit. The following day he was numb from the waist down and had "noticeable neck stiffness," according to his lawsuit. Shelton's lawsuit says that he worked for "a brief stint" at Walgreens last year but quit the job because he couldn't stand the pain of being on his feet. A letter sent to Shelton in August by the pension plan informed him that the plan's retirement board" agreed that you are totally and permanently disabled due to your cervical spine condition, which arose out of League football activities." But the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, said that Shelton qualified for disability payments under a "football degenerative" category. He did not qualify for the increased payments under an "active football" category, the letter said, citing Shelton's work at Walgreens until April 2009. "The Retirement Board found that your employment is incompatible with a finding of total and permanent disability during the 'shortly after' period required for the Active Football category," the letter to Shelton said. "The retirement Board concluded that the absence of medical evidence of total and permanent disability during the twelve months after July 26, 2008 combined with your actual employment during that period, precludes a finding that you qualify for the Active Football category." Smith previously represented the estate of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in a successful case against the NFL's pension plan. "I'm a little surprised, but I probably shouldn't be," Smith said. "The history there is that the pension plan will fight you every step of the way. It really shouldn't be that way." Former Redskins running back Eric Shelton sued the NFL's pension plan in federal court in Baltimore Monday, seeking full disability payments for a spinal injury he said he suffered in an intra-squad scrimmage during training camp in 2008. Shelton's representatives said he has been offered partial benefits and was informed that his benefits were reduced because his injuries did not immediately disable him. Shelton, who also played for the Carolina Panthers, is seeking full disability benefits, plus compensation for the benefits that he previously was denied, according to a statement issued by his lawyers. They said he was injured on a helmet-to-helmet hit and was temporarily paralyzed. He subsequently has suffered from "transient paralysis, memory loss, Parkinsonism, blurred vision, and impairments to his neck and hands, and is unable to work," according to the statement. "The lawsuit is sad, but necessary," said attorney Cy Smith, who represents Shelton. "This is a classic case of the NFL saying one thing but doing another." Douglas W. Ell, an attorney for the NFL's pension plan, said in a written statement: "Last August, the plan's Retirement Board unanimously found Mr. Shelton to be totally and permanently disabled as a result of NFL football activities, including a helmet blow sustained during a July 2008 scrimmage with the Washington Redskins. As a result, Mr. Shelton is currently receiving total and permanent disability ('TP) benefits of $110,000 per year. "The plan has four different categories of full TPbenefits. The lawsuit requests that Mr. Shelton be placed in the highest category, which in part applies where a player is unable to work immediately following his NFL career. Mr. Shelton worked at a pharmacy until April 2009." Smith previously represented the estate of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in a case against the NFL's pension plan. Webster's family won increased payments in a federal appeals court decision in 2006.