Judge Upholds NFL’s Denial of Former Player’s Application for Disability Benefits
Case Study

Judge Upholds NFL’s Denial of Former Player’s Application for Disability Benefits

April 12, 2019

In his prime, former NFL defensive end Darren Mickell wasn’t a star, but he was big and strong, and he had his moments. Standing 6-feet-4 and weighing 255 pounds, he racked up 145 solo tackles and 26 quarterback sacks in his nine-year pro career. 

But the 89 NFL games Mickell played between 1992 and 2001 allegedly took such a heavy toll on his knees, hips, back, and shoulders that he now must be careful lifting even 10 pounds and is “unable to maintain gainful employment,” according to his doctor. And so, in September 2013, the former Kansas City Chief applied for total- and permanent-disability benefits from the NFL’s retirement plan for players.

Mickell’s application was denied, because he was employed — full-time, as a freight-handler. So he applied again, and was denied again — this time because seven neutral physicians were of the unanimous opinion that he was not totally and permanently disabled — and years of litigation ensued.

Calling the NFL’s decision arbitrary and capricious, Mickell sought to have his case reviewed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, a federal law that sets minimum standards for most voluntarily established retirement and health plans in private industry to provide protection for individuals in those plans. And both sides decided to wait a year and a half to see what the Social Security Administration thought of Mickell’s situation.

But this winter the years-long legal battle finally took a decisive turn, one that Mickell the player might have appreciated even if Mickell the plaintiff did not: The defense prevailed. In January 2019, Goldberg Segalla partner Brian D. Equi, an Orlando-based member of the firm’s Corporate Services and Commercial Litigation Practice Group, teamed up with another attorney tapped to defend the NFL and persuaded a U.S. District Court Judge in Florida to uphold the league’s decision not to approve Mickell’s application.

The case isn’t in the win column yet — Mickell is appealing — but the judge’s ruling is a blow to the former NFL player’s quest for total- and permanent-disability benefits from the league and augurs yet another successful client defense for Brian, an experienced and versatile litigator and trial lawyer who has tried cases from Miami to the Georgia border and many places in between.

In addition to litigating cases like these, Goldberg Segalla’s nationwide Sports and Entertainment practice also serves the NFL, MLB, and other major-league sports franchises with legal issues related to workers’ compensation, employment practices, general defense, cybersecurity, patent infringement, transactions and contracts, and other matters.