The National Football League has made curtailing helmet-to-helmet hits a priority, increasing fines and threatening suspensions for blows to the head as part of a midseason crackdown.
But the league takes a different position when it comes to retired players who have suffered head and neck injuries, according to Cyril V. Smith, who filed a federal lawsuit Monday seeking allegedly unpaid benefits for former running back Eric Shelton.
“There’s a sharp contrast between what the NFL says and what the NFL does,” Smith said. “It says they are dangerous hits but won’t pay unless you’re ready to have a fight.”
The lawsuit alleges the NFL’s pension plan has withheld hundreds of thousands of dollars from Shelton based on a career-ending, helmet-to-helmet hit he sustained during training camp in 2008. Shelton alleges he is owed more than twice the $110,000 he receives annually from the pension plan, which is jointly overseen by the NFL and the players’ union.
Both sides agree Shelton is totally and permanently disabled because of his football-related injury, but the pension plan does not pay him the maximum amount possible because he was employed at a Walgreens less than a year after his injury.
“The lawsuit requests that Mr. Shelton be placed in the highest category [of benefits], which in part applies where a player is unable to work immediately following his NFL career,” wrote Douglas W. Ell, the pension plan’s lawyer, in an e-mailed statement. “Mr. Shelton worked at a pharmacy until April 2009.”
But Shelton’s lawsuit counters that the evidence before the pension plan’s retirement board showed Shelton worked briefly at Walgreens “before leaving because of pain caused by his football-related disabilities,” which qualifies him for the maximum benefits under the pension plan’s standards.
“Because Mr. Shelton was only able to work a ‘brief stint’ at Walgreens … and has been unable to work or earn any income since his football injury, he is ‘substantially prevented from’ and ‘substantially unable to engage in’ any employment because of his disabilities,” the lawsuit states.
Shelton, 27, was a second-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2005 and played in a total of nine games over three seasons with the team. He was signed as a free agent by the Washington Redskins in early 2008 and suffered the injury six days into training camp that July.
The helmet-to-helmet hit left Shelton without feeling in his hands and feet for a minute, and he was numb from the waist down the next day, according to the lawsuit. Doctors diagnosed Shelton with a narrowing of his spinal cord, and injury that has left Shelton with a “series of neurological, orthopedic, urological and related problems,” according to the complaint.
Shelton applied for and received partial disability benefits from the pension plan’s Disability Initial Claims Committee totaling $1,410 a month beginning in September 2009, the lawsuit states. Two months later he applied for “totally and permanently disabled” benefits, claiming his football injury “substantially prevented” him from having a job. Two independent physicians selected by the pension plan found Shelton to be suffering from headaches, Parkinsonism (a neurological condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease) and memory loss caused by his football injury.
The DICC increased Shelton’s monthly payments to more than $3,300 in December 2009 but ruled his condition was not caused by a football-related injury. Smith, a partner with Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Baltimore, then took up Shelton’s case on appeal to pension plan’s retirement board. The board found him totally and permanently disabled in August 2010 but cited his Walgreens employment as the reason it increased his payments to $9,167 a month, not the maximum $18,670.
The lawsuit is familiar territory for Smith, who in 2005 won more than $1.5 million in a pension lawsuit on behalf of the family of the late “Iron” Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who spent the bulk of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Smith also settled another pension lawsuit earlier this year brought by two retired players.
Smith said he would have filed Shelton’s lawsuit even before the NFL tightened its rules on helmet-to-helmet hits. Smith is not sure if the league’s efforts will spawn more lawsuits but hopes Shelton’s case becomes a model for future cases.
“I do know that there are other players out there like Eric Shelton,” he said. “What I hope is the NFL will deal fairly with other players in Eric Shelton’s shoes.”