Court Sacks NFL Retiree’s Disability Benefits Claim

     AUSTIN (CN) – The NFL does not owe “Mean” Gene Atkins extra retirement disability benefits for injuries he claims stem from his 10-year career in professional football, the 5th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     A three-judge panel declined to revive a federal lawsuit filed by Atkins, a former cornerback and safety with the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints.
     In July 2010, Atkins sued the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, the NFL Supplemental Disability Plan and the Management Trustees of the NFL Player Retirement Plan in Austin Federal Court, claiming they “are liable to him for additional disability benefi     ts because his disabilities arise from his 10-year NFL career.”
     In his claim for disability benefits, Atkins listed a right shoulder injury; chronic pain in his shoulder, head, neck, arms and hands; mood swings and depression – all of which he attributes to his career in professional football from 1987 until 1996.
     Atkins said he worked at a Target store for a few months but had to stop due to “crippling headaches, shoulder and neck pain, limited range of motion, and numbness in his hands.”
     The retirement board referred his claim to a clinical neuropsychologist, who concluded that Atkins suffered from illiteracy, borderline mental ability and depression, none of which could be directly tied to football.
     The board then decided that Atkins was eligible for “inactive” player disability benefits, rather than the more generous “football degenerative” benefits he sought. Atkins was unable to persuade the board to reclassify his disability benefits.
     He sued the retirement plan in 2008 but lost in arbitration, so he filed a second federal lawsuit in July 2010.
     When the federal judge backed the board’s decision, Atkins appealed to the 5th Circuit. But the former athlete fared no better in the federal appeals court, which sided with the NFL retirement plan.
     Writing for the panel, Judge Edith Brown Clement rejected Atkins’ claim that the district court had used the wrong standard of review when deciding his case.
     “Neither the delay in Atkins receiving a final decision nor the use of an arbitrator rises to the level of a flagrant violation or utter disregard of the plan that might require a heightened standard of review,” Clement wrote in the 15-page opinion.
     She noted that Atkins had voluntarily dismissed his 2008 lawsuit in order to allow arbitration to proceed.
     The panel also disagreed with Atkins’ claim that the district court was wrong to defer to arbitrator Richard Kasher’s decision.
     “Atkins’ argument is misguided because it attempts to construe the retirement board’s appointment of Kasher in an overly narrow and mechanical way,” Clement wrote.
     “The board did not delegate the ultimate decision on benefits but instead used its discretion under the plan to utilize Kasher to break a deadlock, as established under the terms of the plan and in compliance with ERISA [the Employment Retirement Income Security Act].”
     The 5th Circuit similarly rejected Atkins’ final argument that the board’s 2006 and 2011 benefits determinations were an abuse of discretion.     
     “Viewing the doctors’ opinions in the aggregate,” Clement wrote, “there is no conclusive result regarding whether Atkins was or was not totally disabled, and if he was, whether his disability arose from football activities.”

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