A longstanding lawsuit between former NFL running back Michael Cloud, which we’ve cited in previous posts, and the NFL Player Retirement Plan came to a startling and disappointing end. The decision, which defies reality and common sense, is a massive blow to disabled, former NFL players, particularly those who are suffering the neurological effects from multiple concussions.
What in the world happened?
In Cloud v. The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling which awarded Mr. Cloud the highest level of disability benefits.
By any measure, district court Judge Karen Gren Scholer’s ruling in June 2022 seemingly settled the matter. Her opinion cited the sprawling list of failings by the NFL Player Retirement Plan board members, including the now legendary “pre-meeting,” in which the board ruled on 114 claims in only 10 minutes. If one were to be generous and believe that the board indeed considered each individual claim in that time, that’s an average of one claim ruling every 5.26 seconds, including Mr. Cloud’s appeal which consisted of 1,000 pages of documentation.
Along came the Fifth Circuit
In a ruling that repeatedly acknowledged the board’s almost unbelievably cruel practices, the court concluded that Mr. Cloud “could not and did not demonstrate changed circumstances” required by the plan to receive the highest level of benefits. This, presumably, were the changed circumstances the board allegedly considered during its 5.26-second review of Mr. Cloud’s 1,000-page appeal.
Additionally, Mr. Cloud’s observation that the board “has never adhered to a defined or uniform interpretation of ‘changed circumstances’” did not sway the Fifth Circuit. Nor was it moved to action by the Orwellian “absolute discretion” the plan grants the board, effectively empowering it to deny any claim for any reason – or no reason at all.
In the infuriating coda to its decision, the Fifth Circuit added “[a]lthough the NFL Plan’s review board may well have denied Cloud a full and fair review, and although Cloud is probably entitled to the highest level of disability pay,” the ultimate responsibility for the board’s virtually impossible demands rested on Mr. Cloud’s shoulders.
If you aren’t quite grasping the thread of that logic, well, join the befuddled club.
The TL;DR takeaway
Rather than reprimand the board for, in the court’s own words, “a lopsided system aggressively stacked against disabled players,” the Fifth Circuit blamed the former football player, who is demonstrably cognitively impaired after numerous traumatic brain injuries, for not dutifully following the NFL Plan’s escape room-caliber bureaucratic processes to the letter.