A federal judge in Dallas on Thursday ordered a near-doubling of the retirement benefits to be paid to a former National Football League running back who sustained a severe concussion during a 2004 game.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Karen Gren Scholer came at the conclusion of a six-day bench trial of a lawsuit filed in 2020 by Michael Cloud against the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (named for two late commissioners of the league).
Cloud, an All-American at Boston College, was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1999. He later played for the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, where he was a member of the Super Bowl XXXVIII championship team.
Since March 2006, when his injuries forced him to retire from the NFL, Cloud, who turns 47 on July 1, has not been employed, except as a personal trainer “on an infrequent basis,” his lawsuit says.
A website for MAC Sports & Rehab in Rockwall lists Cloud as its founder and owner. (His middle name is Alexander.) But the site gives no indication how active the business is.
The judge found that the board that administers the retirement plan “abused its discretion and acted arbitrarily and capriciously” in denying Cloud’s 2016 written appeal for a higher monthly disability benefit than what he was originally awarded as a pension plan beneficiary.
She said the retirement board – composed of three members selected by the NFL Players Association and three by team owners – “spent virtually no time” evaluating the merits of Cloud’s appeal, including “voluminous” medical records documenting an array of debilitating physical injuries and cognitive impairments resulting from his seven-year NFL career. Instead, the judge said, the board “rubber-stamped” the recommendation of an advisory committee that evaluates disability claims; and relied on “evolving and sometimes tortured interpretations” of key language in the plan’s operating documents to deny Cloud additional benefits.
Scholer characterized the retirement plan’s conduct as “wrong and absurd,” adding: “This plan is broken, and it needs to be fixed.”
Cloud’s lead attorney in the suit, Christian Dennie of Barlow Garsek & Simon in Fort Worth, said the retirement plan has paid Cloud roughly $135,000. Dennie contended – and the judge agreed – that the former player is owed about $265,000.
“Mike is getting what he deserves, and what anyone who heard the evidence knows he deserves,” Dennie said.
Among his client’s neurological and psychological impairments, Dennie said in his closing argument, are migraine headaches, memory loss, vertigo, depression, inattention, insomnia, difficulty making decisions, and unpredictable irritability. He was cut from the NFL, his suit said, in part because, despite being a “smart and savvy NFL veteran,” he “could not recall basic plays he learned in high school.” An administrative judge from the Social Security Administration ruled in 2014 that Cloud is “totally and permanently disabled.”
An attorney for the retirement plan, Edward J. Meehan of the Groom Law Group in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.
In his closing argument Thursday, Meehan said the retirement plan does not dispute that Cloud is owed disability benefits, which it has been paying. The only dispute, he said, is the category under which his case is classified. “Mr. Cloud is classified in this plan exactly where he belongs – exactly,” he said.
The retirement plan “is complex and has multiple categories,” Cloud’s suit said.
He 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 is deemed to have arisen while he was an active player.
The “triggering event” in Cloud’s impairment, Dennie said, was a concussion he sustained October 31, 2004, when, playing for the New York Giants, he was hit helmet-to-helmet by a defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings.
Despite complaining after that collision of headaches, dizziness, and vertigo, the suit said, the running back “was allowed and told to return to play” within 48 hours.