Class action lawsuit against NFL’s disability plan moving forward after court denies league’s motion to dismiss

A class-action lawsuit filed by 10 former NFL players last February against the NFL’s disability plan is moving forward after the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied the NFL’s motion to dismiss the litigation Thursday.

The NFL moved to dismiss the lawsuit last June because the league said that the plaintiffs “fail to state a claim for any violation” of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Since that was denied, the lawsuit is set to proceed to discovery and trial.

The lawsuit, “Alford et al v. The NFL Player Disability & Survivor Benefit Plan et al,” alleges the defendants — the NFL’s disability plan and each member of the NFL disability board — breached their fiduciary duty of loyalty to former NFL players through misinformation in violation of ERISA and wrongfully denied them benefits in violation of the terms of the NFL disability plan. Additionally, the lawsuit alleges that the physicians consulted to make decisions aren’t neutral because they are financially incentivized to deny disability claims.

“It’s not benefiting the players who are really, actually hurt and going through stuff in life,” former NFL Willis McGahee, who’s one of the 10 plaintiffs, told The Athletic last year. “They’re not taking care of us. It’s a sham.”



Oft-injured Willis McGahee leading fight against NFL for lost benefits: ‘It’s a sham’

The NFL disability plan offers three potential benefits that for former player: total and permanent disability benefits, which are for former players who are unable to work due to disability; line of duty disability benefits, which are for players who have a substantial disablement due to NFL activities; and neurocognitive disability benefits, which are for players with mild or moderate neurocognitive impairment.

To receive benefits, former players must complete an online application, provide supporting documents and attend at least one medical examination by what’s described as a “neutral physician” chosen by the NFL disability board. Players awarded benefits through the NFL disability plan can receive as much as $22,084 per month.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is the chairman of the NFL disability board, which has three voting members selected by the NFLPA and three voting members selected by the NFL. Once the case has been presented, a decision is reached after votes from the six members.

“We have to obviously have a system to be able to identify who qualifies for those benefits and who doesn’t qualify for those benefits,” Goodell said last year. “And that’s done with the union and management. And the facts are that’s done independently with doctors who make a determination of whether the benefit, an individual, qualifies under that program. So you don’t want people to benefit from it that don’t qualify for it because it takes away from people who do qualify for it. So you’re always going to have people who may think they qualify for it. Doctors disagree. The joint board disagrees. That’s the way the system works. But I would tell you the benefits in the NFL are off the charts.”

According to the NFLPA, almost 3,200 former players will receive about $320 million in benefits in 2023. That’s a sizable amount, but a significant number of former players who are not eligible to receive benefits believe they should. The plaintiffs of the lawsuit believe they’re representative of that group.

Chris Seeger of Seeger Weiss LLP and Sam Katz of Athlaw LLP are the two attorneys representing the proposed class of former NFL players in the lawsuit. They released the following statement to The Athletic on Thursday regarding the court denying the NFL’s motion to dismiss their lawsuit:

“The Court’s order denying the NFL’s attempt to dismiss this case is a huge win for retired NFL players who have been subjected to the NFL Disability Plan’s systemic injustice for far too long,” Seeger and Katz said. “On behalf of every former NFL player, we look forward to continuing to shine a light on this betrayal by the NFL, holding the Plan fully accountable, and correcting this broken system so it is fair for players moving forward.”

The plaintiffs are seeking recovery of benefits, but they’re also vying to remove the NFL disability board’s members, aiming to prohibit the use of “biased” doctors and hoping to “correct and prevent further misinformation.” The broader goal is to prevent what they’ve alleged to happen from happening to others.

“When it’s all over and done with, you would think they would be there to help you out,” McGahee said of the NFL. “Think about all the money you’ve made. All of the excitement you put on that football field. And you laid it out and put your body on the line for those guys, for your teammates, for the team, for the city, for the organization. And when it’s all said and done, it’s on to the next person. You’re old news.”

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(Photo of Willis McGahee: George Gojkovich / Getty Images)

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