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Media Alerts - Solomon v. Bell-Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan -- Fourth Circuit
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November 27, 2017
  Solomon v. Bell-Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan -- Fourth Circuit
"Pro Football Is Like Nuclear Warfare. There Are No Winners, Only Survivors": NFL Disability Benefits Grant Must Be More than "Inactive"

Areas of Law: Employment, Disability

Issue Presented: Whether the district court erred in holding that the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (the "Plan") abused its discretion in denying a certain type of disability benefits to a former NFL player.

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the United States District Court for the District of Maryland correctly found that the Plan abused its discretion in granting a former NFL player second-tier disability benefits. The Fourth Circuit found that the Plan failed to follow a reasoned process or explain the basis of its determination regarding the former player's application for disability, thus abusing its discretion.

Extended Summary: Jesse Solomon played in the NFL for 9 seasons before retiring in 1995. Over the court of Solomon's career he sustained more than 69,000 full-speed contact hits and suffered numerous orthopedic injuries requiring multiple operations. Solomon's injuries resulted in him experiencing symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ("CTE"), chronic knee pain, depression, and anxiety. Solomon's injuries forced him to resign from his job as a high school teacher and football coach in 2007. Due to his inability to work, Solomon sought disability benefits under the Plan.

Solomon first applied for benefits in 2009, asserting that football-related orthopedic injuries rendered him unable to work. The Plan denied Solomon's 2009 application. In 2010, Solomon again applied for disability benefits, claiming that football-related neurological and cognitive impairments rendered him unable to work. While the decision regarding Solomon's 2010 application was pending, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") granted Solomon disability benefits, finding that the onset date of Solomon's disability was October 29, 2008. Pursuant to the terms of the Plan, a determination from the Social Security Administration that a player is eligible for Social Security Disability benefits automatically entitles the player to disability benefits under the Plan.

The highest level of benefits, "Football Degenerative," apply when a player becomes totally disabled less than 15 years after the player retires. A lower tier of benefits, "Inactive" benefits, apply when a player becomes totally disabled more than 15 years after retirement. "Football Degenerative" benefits pay more per month than "Inactive" benefits. The Plan granted Solomon's application and found that he was entitled to the lower level of "Inactive" benefits

Solomon sought reclassification from "Inactive" to "Football Degenerative" because the SSA found that the onset date of his disability was less than 15 years after he retired. His request for reclassification was denied. Solomon appealed the denial of his reclassification to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The district court held that Solomon was entitled to "Football Degenerative" benefits for two reasons. First, according to the court, the SSA's disability-onset date bound the Plan. Alternatively, the court found Solomon was entitled to "Football Degenerative" benefits because the Board abused its discretion in making an "Inactive" determination.

On review, the Fourth Circuit agreed that the Plan abused its discretion in classifying Solomon as "Inactive." Accordingly, the court did not reach the question of whether the SSA's disability-onset date determination bound the Plan. However, the court acknowledged in a footnote that the Plan has since been amended to state that the SSA's disability-onset date determination is not binding for the purpose of Plan benefits.

Solomon's 2009 application listed only orthopedic injuries. Consequently, the Fourth Circuit found the denial of that application had no bearing on whether Solomon was disabled due to cognitive injuries as Solomon's 2010 application alleged. The court held that the Plan was required to consider the facts and rely on substantial evidence to sustain a denial of benefits. However, the court determined that the Plan had relied on no evidence and ignored multiple doctors' examinations, including from its own neutral neurologist, regarding the severity of Solomon's brain injuries. The Fourth Circuit concluded by stating that the Plan's decision to exclude evidence and deny Solomon "Football Degenerative" benefits was arbitrary.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Motz, Shedd, and Duncan

Argument Date: 05/9/2017

Date of Issued Opinion: 06/23/2017

Docket Number: No. 16-1730

Decided: Decided by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Tim Willman, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Michael Lee Junk, GROOM LAW GROUP, CHARTERED. Washington, D.C., for Appellants. Adam Ben Abelson, ZUCKERMAN SPAEDER LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Cyril V. Smith, ZUCKERMAN SPAEDER LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Duncan

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/27/2017 12:42 PM     4th Circuit  

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