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Former NFL players sue over disability claims, accuse plan of ‘disturbing’ denials

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is named in the lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday. (Tyler Kaufman/AP Images for the NFL)
9 min

Ten retired NFL players, including former star running back Willis McGahee, sued the league’s benefits plan, its board of trustees and Commissioner Roger Goodell in federal court Thursday, accusing them of displaying “an overly aggressive and disturbing pattern of erroneous and arbitrary benefits denials, bad faith contract misinterpretations, and other unscrupulous tactics” to wrongfully deny disability claims.

In an effort to suppress disability costs, the lawsuit alleges, the NFL plan — which is jointly managed and funded by the league and the NFL Players Association — routinely steers players to financially biased doctors, some of whom collect hundreds of thousands per year from the plan and who fail at exceedingly high rates to find players are disabled.

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When players appeal denied disability claims, the lawsuit asserts, the plan’s board has ignored federal law requiring it to fairly review all evidence and instead overly relies on the opinions of these biased doctors, as well as inaccurate case summaries prepared by the plan’s law firm.

And when players challenge the plan in the federal courts, the suit alleges, they have revealed how the plan’s board has displayed a “disturbing pattern of illogical and inconsistent interpretations” of its own rules in an effort to justify denying claims.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where the NFL benefits plan office is located, and seeks class action status on behalf of thousands of former players. The suit seeks unspecified financial damages and the removal of the plan’s board, which consists of six voting members — three each representing the NFL and the union — as well as Goodell as a seventh, nonvoting member. The NFL and the NFLPA both did not reply to requests for comment Thursday. The NFL benefits plan’s attorneys at Groom law firm in D.C. also did not reply to a request for comment.

In a news conference Thursday, McGahee, 41, said his personal physician told him he has arthritis in his joints similar to that of an “80-year-old man.” But, according to the suit, his six-year odyssey to obtain disability payments — which involved multiple evaluations by well-compensated plan physicians with high rates of failing to find players disabled — ended last year in denial.

“Once we stop playing, we’re all used up,” McGahee said at the news conference. “We deserve to be taken care of.”

Among the attorneys leading the suit is Christopher Seeger, a veteran of several major class action cases, including the case against the NFL, filed by thousands of former players starting in 2012, alleging the league failed to protect them from the dangers of concussions. That case’s settlement, which is ongoing, has paid out more than $1 billion to NFL retirees suffering from dementia and other brain diseases linked to repetitive head trauma.

“After years of putting their bodies and brains on the line with the NFL’s promise of assistance should they need it, these former players deserve far more than a sham process in which there is little to no chance of success,” said the four law firms involved in the case, including Seeger’s, in a statement. “It is shameful that an organization worth billions of dollars is depriving former players of their rightful benefits.”

The lawsuit comes the day after the publication of a Washington Post investigation that found the NFL’s disability plan had displayed a pattern of aggressively fighting to deny disability claims and shirking legal requirements to fairly review cases. The Post’s investigation also found repeated instances in which the NFL’s plan seized on technicalities, ignored medical evidence and flouted federal judges to justify denying claims.

In a statement for that story, the NFL disputed The Post’s findings and asserted the plan had never “improperly decided” a disability claim, despite rulings by judges in six lawsuits that found the plan wrongly denied claims and three additional cases in which judges identified problems in how the plan reviewed claims.

That stance elicited outrage from former players and their lawyers, who had fought the plan for years in the courts to win their disability payments.

“When a federal judge tells you multiple times you’ve broken the law, your response should be to change your ways and follow the law. Attacking the courts instead shows just how little the plan has learned … and how lightly they take their duties to NFL retirees,” said Cy Smith, partner at Zuckerman Spaeder firm in Baltimore. Smith is not involved with Thursday’s suit but has represented several former players in lawsuits against the NFL plan, most notably former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, whose estate won the first judgment against the plan in 2005.

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The suit alleging the NFL’s plan mistreated disabled former players comes three days before a Super Bowl that caps a season marred by two events that renewed focus on the league’s stance toward the health and safety of its players. Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered two confirmed concussions, prompting the league to strengthen its concussion protocols. And in January, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest, an incident that ended a Monday night game and briefly brought the entire league to a standstill.

Thursday’s lawsuit accused the NFL’s plan of lying to former players by referring to its doctors as “neutral physicians,” and the attorneys on the case said they have collected records and data showing what league retirees and their lawyers have long suspected: that the plan doctors who make the most money also are the least likely to find players disabled.

For example, the suit claims: over the course of the same time frame in 2015 and 2016, doctors who earned more than $137,000 found players totally and permanently disabled at a rate of 0.5 percent, while doctors earning between $52,000 and $60,000 found players disabled at a rate of 27 percent. Compensation figures for plan doctors is publicly available in financial disclosure forms, and attorneys on the case who have represented players compiled data about how plan physicians dealt with their clients.

“Physicians tasked with evaluating players are financially incentivized to deny benefits,” said attorney Sam Katz, who has represented hundreds of former players seeking disability payments from the NFL plan.

McGahee, the most accomplished player named in the suit, played 10 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos and two other teams, twice earning Pro Bowl nods before retiring in 2014. In 2016, the suit states, McGahee applied for total and permanent disability payments from the NFL plan, citing symptoms of cognitive problems he believed were caused by concussions as well as ailments relating to orthopedic injuries he suffered during his playing career.

McGahee was evaluated by a neurologist who had been paid nearly $1.5 million from the plan, according to the suit. The neurologist did not find McGahee qualified for any of the league’s disability payments, according to the suit, which asserts the same neurologist also failed to diagnose a disability in 33 other retirees.

In 2020, McGahee reapplied for disability benefits, the suit states. Over the next two years, McGahee was evaluated by four plan physicians — a neurologist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist and an orthopedist — who all had made hundreds of thousands or more from the plan and failed to diagnose players with disabilities at high rates, according to the suit. None qualified him for disability payments, and the plan ultimately denied his claim in November.

Lance Zeno, a former Cleveland Browns center, also accused the plan of wrongfully denying his claim. Doctors who evaluated Zeno outside of the plan’s network diagnosed him with early to moderate dementia, the suit asserts, but two NFL plan doctors — who had each earned more than $1 million from the plan over the years — failed to qualify him for disability payments, and the plan denied his claim.

Former New York Jets safety Eric Smith, also among the retirees suing, said in Thursday’s news conference that injuries he suffered during his playing days left him with chronic migraines and joint and back pain that also ended his football coaching career. Many days, Smith said, he finds himself in too much pain to play with his two young sons.

But six different plan physicians who evaluated Smith in 2018 and 2019 failed to qualify him for disability payments, the lawsuit suggests, because of financial motivations.

Headquartered in Baltimore, the NFL benefits plan is independent of both the league and union, which fund the plan’s operations and appoint three members each to the plan’s board. While the plan’s disability payments appear generous on paper — with payments ranging from $65,000 to $265,000 annually for qualifying retirees — former players have complained for decades that the claims process is rigged against them because of biased doctors and excessive red tape.

Both the NFL and the union, in defending the plan, have highlighted how much it spends annually: more than $320 million, to more than 3,100 retired players.

Multiple federal judges have expressed concern in rulings, though, about the NFL plan’s board overly relying on the opinions of plan doctors, noting the potential for financial bias.

Charles Dimry, a former cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons and four other teams over 12 seasons, twice defeated the plan in court to earn his full disability payments, a legal quest that took six years. In those cases, judges repeatedly criticized the plan’s board for giving more weight to opinions issued by their doctors, noted the possibility of bias, and ultimately forced the NFL plan to approve Dimry’s claim.

In a statement, Dimry’s attorney, Terry Coleman, assailed the NFL’s stance that the disability plan’s losses in the federal courts over the years are a tiny fraction of the thousands of claims the plan handles.

“Unlike Mr. Dimry, countless players lack the ability or resources to stand up to the NFL, endure 6 years of litigation, and successfully fight back against a system rigged against them,” Coleman said.