Michael Cloud played in the NFL from 1999 to 2006, including one with the 2004 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. While that win is undoubtedly a career highlight, Cloud adds another life-changing win to his resume. This one involves a federal judge in Texas ruling in favor of the retired player after determining on July 19 that the administrators of The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (“Plan”) disregarded their fiduciary duties under ERISA because they denied Cloud’s application without first employing a fair and full application review. Cloud had sought the highest level of benefits from the plan. The player won $1.2 million to cover attorney fees with up to an additional $600,000 if the NFL plan appeals.
Injuries become increasingly severe
Cloud’s appeal included information claiming that the former player endured nearly every possible injury to his body during a career that also included the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Giants. The injuries included head trauma, where the player’s vision goes black. Cloud said that a head injury in 2004 hastened the end of his career and led to early retirement. The player also pointed out that the severity and frequency of the injuries increased throughout his career, leading to cumulative mental disorders.
Cloud first received benefits in 2010 as part of the players’ retirement. Unfortunately, he was utterly disabled by 2014, less than ten years after he stopped playing. Cloud tried to get his benefits reclassified in 2016, but the plan rejected his initial 1000-page application and the appeal.
Board doesn’t do its job
The player brought legal action in 2020, claiming that the defendants did not adequately consider his application – instead, the board had a paralegal summarize the application. Some believed that the committee made up its mind before seeing the appeal summary and rejected the application on ad hoc grounds. This summary also mistakenly cited incorrect documents from another benefits plan. The administrators further discredited themselves by including contradictory information in the denial letter.
During the appeal’s closing arguments, Cloud’s attorneys (who are not associated with this firm) further argued that the board routinely rejected applications and reviewed up to 50 applications at a time with little discussion of the individual circumstances of each case. The administrators also claimed that the application had not met the required deadlines. Rather than acknowledging the increasingly debilitating nature of the injuries, the board pointed out that there were no new injuries between initial benefits in 2014 and the reclassification petition in 2016.