A federal judge in Dallas wrote this week that “the curtain has been pulled back as to the inner workings” of the National Football League’s retirement plan, thanks to a disabled former running back’s lawsuit for higher benefits.
“And what lies behind it is far from pretty,” U.S. District Judge Karen Gren Scholer wrote Tuesday.
In a scalding 84-page memorandum opinion and order, Scholer said the board that administers the retirement plan violated federal regulations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, abused its discretion, acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and relied almost exclusively on a paralegal’s research for its outside counsel, the Groom Law Group of Washington, D.C., to limit pension benefits paid to Michael Cloud.
Cloud’s NFL career spanned seven seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants and New England Patriots.
“Behind the curtain is the troubling but apparent reality that these abuses by the board are part of a larger strategy engineered to ensure that former NFL players suffering from the devastating effects of severe head trauma are not awarded … [maximum] benefits,” the judge wrote.
“It is telling that out of the thousands of former players who filed applications for benefits, only 30 players currently receive” those maximum benefits, she wrote.
Edward J. Meehan of the Groom Law Group, who represented the retirement plan in a six-day bench trial before Scholer in May, did not return a telephone call or email message seeking comment.
Cloud, an All-American from Boston College, was a member of the Patriots’ team that won Super Bowl XXXVIII after the 2003 NFL season. His pro career ended in 2006 after a series of debilitating injuries, notably a concussion on Oct. 31, 2004, in a violent helmet-to-helmet collision with a defensive back.
Since his forced retirement, Cloud, who turns 47 next week, has not been employed except “on an infrequent basis” as a personal trainer, according to his lawsuit.
On May 26, at the trial’s conclusion, Cloud’s lead attorney, Christian Dennie of Barlow Garsek & Simon in Fort Worth, recited his client’s neurological and psychological impairments. Those include migraine headaches, memory loss, vertigo, depression, inattention, insomnia, difficulty making decisions and unpredictable irritability.
The NFL retirement plan is paying Cloud $135,000 a year. Dennie contended – and the judge agreed – that the former player is instead owed about $265,000.
“Mike is getting what he deserves and what anyone who heard the evidence knows he deserves,” Dennie said after the judge’s May 26 ruling.
Cloud was cut from the NFL, his suit said, in part because he “could not recall basic plays he learned in high school.”
The Social Security Administration ruled in 2014 that Cloud is “totally and permanently disabled.”
The NFL’s retirement plan is complex and has multiple categories. Cloud was classified as “Inactive A,” meaning that, subject to special rules, his disability is deemed to have arisen long after he was retired. Dennie argued – and the judge agreed – that Cloud should have been classified as “Active Football,” meaning that, subject to special rules, his disability began while he was an active player.
The judge’s written order instructed the NFL retirement plan to pay Cloud “Active Football total and permanent benefits” retroactive to 2014, including pre- and post-judgment interest. She ordered the two sides to meet to discuss exactly what Cloud is owed and give her a number within five days of the date or her order.
Separately, she said, Cloud is entitled to his attorney fees, the amount of which she will determine later.