Former All-Pro Delvin Williams Sues NFL For Disability Benefits
Williams injuries have caused long-term issues including Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) symptoms. CTE is a disease that many medical doctors believe is caused by multiple concussive events.
Williams was the first player to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season for teams from both the original AFL and NFL. Williams is a vested participant in the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Players Retirement Plan. This Plan provides vested and eligible NFL players the right to retirement, disability, and other related benefits. See a breakdown of the Plan here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row equal_height=”yes” content_placement=”middle”][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]The lawsuit filed by Williams is the most recent step in a long battle with the NFL going back to 1985. Here, the primary issue focuses on how the NFL and the Retirement Plan classify Williams, which affects the number of benefits available. The NFL has classified Williams as an “Inactive A” rather than an “Active” status. These classifications are, in part, determined on the time the injury was sustained.
In 2011 the NFL changed its disability policy. Prior to the change Williams had been classified as eligible for “Football Degenerative” benefits, which were substantially the same benefits as “Active” benefits. In 2011, “Football Degenerative” benefits was reclassified as “Inactive A.” The reclassification significantly reduced the benefits that Williams received.
Williams believes that the Retirement Board violated the law when they reclassified him. Further, he believes he is entitled to “Active” status and other disability benefits available to those suffering from the symptoms of CTE and other neurocognitive problems.
The court will examine the Retirement Boards decision to classify Williams as “Inactive A” to see if it was arbitrary and capricious. This is a difficult standard for Williams to prove, since all the NFL needs to show is that they had a rational basis for the decision.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”6294″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The Injury and litigation up to this point:
In 1980 Williams suffered a severe neck injury as a member of the Miami Dolphins. The injury ended the season for Williams. According to the complaint filed by Williams in the Northern District of California, he alleges that the Dolphins medical staff did not inform Williams of the seriousness of the injury. The complaint states: “Mr. Williams should have been told by the team doctors at the time that he could no longer play football again.”
Despite the seriousness of the injury, Williams remained on the active roster of the Dolphins to start the 1981 season. The Dolphins released Williams, who then signed with the Green Bay Packers. The Packers also conducted a medical examination and cleared Williams to play. Green Bay released Williams in October 1981.
At the time of his release by the Packers, Williams was still unaware of the seriousness of his neck injury. Williams was not aware of the seriousness of his injury until he was recruited to play in the USFL by the Oakland Invaders and undergoes another medical examination.
After being informed of the extent of his injury and being in chronic pain, Williams filed for disability benefits under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Retirement Plan. Under the Plan there are several types of benefits a player can receive. The available benefits include:
Line of Duty—This is a disability benefit provided when a player suffers an injury that is “substantial disablement arising out of NFL football activities.”
Total and Permanent—This is a disability benefit provided under the Plan when a former player has “become totally disabled to the extent that he is substantially prevented from or substantially unable to engage in any occupation or employee not for remuneration or profit… and that such condition is permanent.”
Williams initially applied for Total and Permanent benefits for all of the injuries he suffered. However, the application was denied by the Plan and the Appeal Board. Williams then appealed the decision to an independent arbitrator who decided that Williams injuries had not caused him to stop playing in the NFL. According to the arbitrator the reason Williams stopped playing was that he was released and not re-signed. Therefore the injury was not eligible as a line of duty benefit.
Further, Williams had worked for several companies and non-profits, where he was paid for making appearances. The Plan and arbitrator said that Williams injuries did not qualify as Total and Permanent since he was still earning income for his work with a variety of companies and charities. Ultimately, the Retirement Board had operated on a policy that limited eligibility for football-related disability benefits “to only those players who have a single indemnification injury causing the disability.”
In 1993 the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that this policy of the Retirement Board was arbitrary and capricious and violated federal law. In response to the court’s decision, the Retirement Board modified the Plan.
In the 1995 Williams again applied to receive retroactive disability benefits. His eligibility for total and permanent benefits was again denied. Williams fought the NFL in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where he ultimately lost.
Williams story is sadly and unfortunately not a unique or rare one. This highlights the importance for athletes to have a team of advisors that will help guide them through the complexities of pension plans, disability, and medical treatments.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]