Former NFL running back Willis McGahee and nine other retired NFL players sued the NFL and NFLPA’s disability and retirement plans, along with Roger Goodell and the six board members, on Thursday. The defendants are accused of overseeing an allegedly rigged system that denies retired players what they’re rightfully owed.
The 86-page complaint, which was filed in a Baltimore federal court, includes nine claims that draw from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The board is depicted as cruelly misapplying rules so that retired players in need of care are left without recourse. As the complaint tells it, the board pays millions of dollars to physicians who are supposedly “neutral” but who consistently diminish player health concerns and urge the denial of benefits.
The players want their case to become a class action. They demand monetary damages that would “place them in the same position in which they would have been in if Defendants had granted and paid them the full amount of benefits that they deserved” and an injunction that would compel changes to the plan’s administration and remove board members.
The board, which is legally responsible for implementing and administering policies, has seven members. One is Goodell, who lacks a vote but is honorary chairman. He or a designee is supposed to preside at all meetings. The other six are voting members; the NFL and NFLPA each appoint three.
The lawsuit highlights McGahee’s experiences of McGahee. The former Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens star running back, who last played in 2013 and began to seek benefits in 2016, suffers from “severe chronic pain, depression and suicidal ideation.” A neurologist whom the disability board has paid nearly $1.5 million evaluated McGahee but asserted he wasn’t disabled. The neurologist is described as “incorrectly stating” that McGahee was unimpaired on two cognitive tests despite “examination results showing cognitive impairment (e.g., drawing a clockface showing eleven past ten o’clock when instructed to draw ten past eleven o’clock).”
Attorneys representing McGahee say they sampled this neurologist’s findings in response to more than 30 other retired players who sought benefits. In each one, the neurologist found no disability. The complaint argues this physician “has an incentive to provide it with reports that will increase the chances that the Board will frequently return to him in the future—in other words, reports upon which the Board may rely in justifying its decision to deny benefits to a Plan participant.” According to data featured in the complaint, physicians who are paid in the six figures by the board are more likely to recommend a denial than those paid under $100K.
The complaint also details McGahee visiting other neurologists/neuropsychologists who are similarly portrayed as being paid substantial sums of money by the board and consistently denying players are disabled despite evidence indicating otherwise. One of them is portrayed as “improperly consider[ing] McGahee’s ‘demographic background,’ including his race, when estimating his premorbid IQ.” Another deemed McGahee not disabled despite him expressing “thoughts that he would be better off dead” and describing his “substantial dysfunction with daily tasks.” The retired players insist they lack a credible method of challenging these adverse and, they say, inaccurate findings.
McGahee is joined in the lawsuit by Jason Alford, Daniel Loper, Michael McKenzie, Jamize Olawale, Alex Parsons, Eric Smith, Charles Sims, Joey Thomas and Lance Zeno. The case has been assigned to Judge Beth Gesner.
The board will have an opportunity to answer the complaint, deny the allegations and maintain it has acted lawfully. Expect the board to assert its administration fully adheres to rules and policies that reflect league and union negotiations.