Mike Webster, the NFL and ERISA
Lawyers for Webster eventually sued the retirement plan, alleging that the plan was governed by ERISA and that the plan administrator abused its discretion in denying the higher of the benefit awards to Webster, and in awarding him only the lower of the two. Discretion was reserved to the administrator in no uncertain terms, and yet the courts had no trouble concluding that the discretion had been abused, and in therefore overruling the plan’s benefit decision. As any of you who practice in this field or regularly read this blog know, a finding that an administrator acted arbitrarily and capriciously and abused its discretion - warranting rejection of the administrator’s determination - is a relatively uncommon event.
As a result, when one gets beyond the sports story interest raised by the case, the interesting question that is left behind is what was it about the administrator’s determination that drove the court to such a conclusion. And the answer to that question is telling: the Fourth Circuit had little trouble concluding that an abuse of discretion had occurred because “[w]hile recognizing that the decisions of a neutral plan administrator are entitled to great deference, we are nevertheless constrained to find on these facts that the Board lacked substantial evidence to justify its denial here. In particular, the Board ignored the unanimous medical evidence, including that of its own expert, disregarded the conclusion of its own appointed investigator, and relied for its determination on factors disallowed by the Plan.”
Well, if you think about it, how can those facts be anything but an abuse of discretion? And in many ways, that is what is different about this case from most denial of benefit cases, in which claimants routinely assert that an administrator wrongly weighed the evidence in the administrative record and therefore committed an abuse of discretion; in those typical cases, the evidence in the administrative record is subject to differing possible conclusions, and ERISA grants the administrator - so long as it was granted discretion by the plan documents - the freedom to select which of those possible conclusions should apply. Here, however, the administrator was not picking among possible conclusions warranted by the evidence, but was instead selecting a conclusion that was entirely contradicted by the overwhelming - and it appears possibly unanimous - evidence before it. That, we see quite clearly in this case, is beyond the outer edge of an administrator’s discretion.
The case, which is interesting for those of you interested in football, in Mike Webster, or in ERISA, is Sunny Jani, Administrator of the Estate of Michael L. Webster v. the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, out of the Fourth Circuit this week.
THE NFLPA AND THE NFL OWENERS HAVE AGREED IN PRINCIPLE REGARDING APPROVING DISABILITY CLAIMS BY FORMER PLAYERS WHO ARE KNOW RECEIVING SOCIAL SECURITY AND NOT NFL TOTAL AND PERMIMENT.THE PLAN IS ONLY CLASSIFING PLAYER IN THE IN ACTIVE CATEGORY AND NOT FOOTBALL DEGENERITAVE,BECAUSE IT COSTS MORE($25K AND $110K) EVENTHOUGH THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE IS CLASSIFING SOME PLAYERS AS FOOTBALL DEGENERATIVE.THIS MUST STOP.THE MONEY IS THERE.SO PAY THE RETIRED PLAYERS WHO QUALIFY.