(CN) – The 11th Circuit affirmed a ruling that a law firm cannot get money from an NFL pension and disability plan for legal fees incurred by two retired players.
The three-judge panel in Atlanta ruled unanimously for The Retirement Board of the Bert Bell/Peter Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan.
Former NFL players Odessa Turner and Marvin Woodson hired Georgia attorney Kurt Ward to seek disability benefits. Ward got them disability awards in 2008 and 2009, but the retired players stopped paying their legal fees some time after they began receiving the benefits.
Ward wanted access to the players’ plans to cover the balance, and a state court granted him that right by default when Turner and Woodson failed to appear.
But the NFL Retirement Board refused to release the benefits, so Ward sued in Federal Court, unsuccessfully. Ward appealed, and has lost again.
“The Retirement Board objected to the payment of the benefits because it determined that payment was prohibited by the plan, specifically the plan’s spendthrift provision,” the 11th Circuit wrote.
The provision states: “No benefit under the plan will be subject in any manner to anticipation, pledge, encumbrance, alienation, levy or assignment, nor to seizure, attachment or other legal process for the debts of any player or beneficiary.”
Ward claimed that language in the plan distinguishing two types of benefits, pension and disability or welfare benefits, makes the spendthrift provision ambiguous, but the 11th Circuit intercepted and ran it back.
“The Ward Firm’s strained attempt to create ambiguity where none exists is unavailing,” the judges wrote. “We agree with the district court that the language of the spendthrift provision is clear and unambiguous.”
Ward also claimed that even if the language were “unambiguous,” the common law of trusts should be applied. Once again, the panel blew the whistle.
“The document governing the plan expressly provides that no benefits will be ‘subject in any manner to … assignment, nor to … other legal process for the debts’ of any retired players. That unambiguous command is not inconsistent with any statutory requirement of ERISA and thus must be followed by the Plan’s fiduciaries.” (Ellipses in complaint.)
The judges said that if retired players had wanted the right to assign benefits, or to “allow the benefits to be reached by law firm creditors through legal process,” they could have done so through collective bargaining, but they did not – they bargained for the spendthrift provision to protect themselves.
The 11th Circuit concluded: “The Retirement Board’s reading of the plan’s unambiguous terms and its refusal to deposit the disability benefits into the Ward Firm’s trust account were not arbitrary and capricious. … Accordingly, the district court did not err in declaring that the spendthrift provision in the plan prevents the plan parties from depositing the disability benefits owed to Turner and Woodson into the Ward Firm’s trust account.”