Judge Tosses Ex-NFL Player’s Lawsuit Alleging Insufficient Benefits Disclosure

By | September 6, 2019

Hours before the kickoff of the pro football season, a judge moved to toss out a lawsuit by a former National Football League player who claims the league sends ex-players seeking disability benefits for head injuries through a maze of confusion and deceit.

Christopher Hudson, a safety who played eight seasons in the league, sued the NFL in May 2018 alleging that the NFL Management Council, the NFL Players Association and the board of the league’s retirement plan violated federal laws on benefits by failing to make sufficient disclosures to participants about what they were entitled to. The suit seeks class action status on behalf of others in a similar situation.

On Thursday, ahead of the Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers season opener, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Lehrburger recommended that the suit be dismissed. He found that neither the council nor the union is a fiduciary — a party bound to act in the interest of another — responsible for monitoring the board of the retirement plan and its members.

Hudson’s lawsuit is one of many filed by former players against the league over their health and wellbeing. By far the most prominent is a class action centered on head trauma that covered more than 20,000 retired players. That suit was recently settled, with almost $700 million in claims already approved.

Unions and management are generally not considered to be fiduciaries, as retirement plans have trustees appointed by the parties who perform that function, the judge wrote in his decision. If every employer or union that appoints retirement plan trustees were found to be fiduciaries liable for the acts or omissions of the trustees, the judge wrote, “the whole system of multi-employer pension plans would become grossly inefficient.”

In the suit, Hudson claims that a summary of the retirement plan “failed to define or explain terms, used legal jargon” and “discouraged players from retaining a lawyer to assist them through the benefit process.” The average plan participant “is disabled and likely affected by head trauma,” Hudson claims. If that participant is initially classified at a lower level of benefits, he may not understand how hard it is to get reclassified as having injuries that can be shown to be related to playing football, according to the complaint.

As for the trustees themselves, the judge said the summary’s description of how players would be reevaluated to determine whether they were eligible for certain benefits “reasonably informs participants” such as Hudson that they would face a higher standard upon seeking reclassification.

“If summary plan descriptions were required to include interpretations of all conceivable disputes or ambiguities, it would be virtually impossible to author a summary plan description, or a plan document itself, entirely free from the need for interpretation,” Lehrburger said.

A lawyer for Hudson didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Lehrburger’s recommendation.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods in Manhattan will decide whether to accept it.

Hudson played for the Bears, the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The case is Hudson v. National Football League Management Council, 18-cv-4483, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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