Former NFL player sues league over disability benefits plan

Former NFL players struggle to win disability benefits
Former NFL players struggle to obtain disability benefits

Former NFL cornerback Charles Dimry filed a federal lawsuit against the National Football League on March 23, accusing the league of violating federal law by failing to follow the terms of its disability benefits plan.

In 2008, Dimry was approved for line-of-duty disability benefits, as a result of two major neck injuries during his 12-season career. Players are eligible for these benefits if they have “substantial disablement arising out of NFL football activities.”

Shortly thereafter, his neck injuries worsened, spreading to the rest of his body and requiring surgery. However, the NFL denied his application for Total and Permanent benefits, which are available for players who are “substantially prevented from or substantially unable to engage in any occupation or employment for remuneration or profit.” His appeal was denied in December 2015.

Under the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974, which governs most employer long-term pension and disability benefits plans, federal courts only overturn disability benefits appeals in rare circumstances, pursuant to a stringent “abuse of discretion” standard.

In the complaint, Dimry asserts that the NFL disregarded the evaluations performed by his doctor, and deferred entirely to its own “neutral” physician, whom he was required to meet under the plan.

“Pursuant to the uniform practice employed in all NFL disability plans, the plan did not provide Dr. (James) Chen with a definition of T&P disability, nor did it provide relevant vocational information,” the lawsuit states. “Dr. Chen like all other Plan physicians, has no vocational training.

“In spite of these material omissions, the Plan uniformly defers to ‘neutral’ physicians rather than exercising its own discretion as required by the Plan’s written terms and without regard to the evaluations, opinions and conclusions of Plaintiff’s treating physicians, all of whom fully support Plaintiff’s disability.”

Among the other alleged ERISA violation, the lawsuit accuses the NFL of violating its  fiduciary duties to oversee the plan in accordance with the interests of its beneficiaries, and by failing to disclose requested documents relating to how the league makes benefit determinations.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Dimry played for five teams over the course of 12 seasons, including the Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers.

For more stories on former NFL players and their challenges obtaining disability benefits, read the Sports Illustrated story about Dwight Harrison, the Vice Sports story about Kyle Turley, and the New York Times story about Mike Webster.