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Solomon v. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Nfl Player Retirement Plan

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 4, 2016

JESSE SOLOMON Plaintiff
v.
THE BERT BELL/PETE ROZELLE NFL PLAYER RETIREMENT PLAN and THE NFL PLAYER SUPPLEMENTAL DISABILITY PLAN Defendants

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Marvin J. Garbis United States District Judge

The Court has before it Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 23], Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record [ECF No. 27], and the materials submitted relating thereto. The Court has held a hearing and had the benefit of the arguments of counsel.

As discussed herein, Plaintiff Jesse Solomon ("Solomon") has sued Defendants the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan and the NFL Player Supplemental Disability Plan (collectively referred to as "the Plan") for payment of certain disability benefits.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Jesse Solomon

Upon his graduation from Florida State University in 1986 with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science, Solomon played linebacker in the National Football League ("NFL") for the Minnesota Vikings until 1989. In 1989, he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys and played for that team until 1991. In 1991, he was traded to the New England Patriots and then immediately re-traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for whom he played in 1991-92. He was released by the Buccaneers in 1992 and played for the Atlanta Falcons from 1992 until 1994. In 1994, he signed with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent and retired from professional football at the end of the 1994/95 season.

Over the course of his nine-season NFL career, it is estimated that Solomon sustained approximately 69, 000 "full-speed contact hits." AR[1] 437. "Too many times to count, " he experienced "triple vision" after an impact and would, at times, "lose sense of who [he was]." AR 616. Additionally, he sustained numerous injuries to his knees and underwent multiple knee operations to repair ligaments, tendons, and scar tissue. AR 357.

Following his NFL career, Solomon completed a Master's degree program at Florida A&M University, obtained a Florida teaching and coaching certificate, and worked, starting in 2001, as a high school football coach and physical education instructor. But, as time passed, he suffered increasingly from chronic headaches, joint problems, depression, and anxiety.

In 2005, an MRI of Solomon's brain revealed abnormalities that his physician, Dr. Hudson, opined were "most likely a result of multiple high velocity impacts in a helmet-to-helmet fashion and chronic concussion syndrome." AR 358. In that same report, Dr. Hudson noted that he suffered from a wide variety of injuries "that are likely to worsen with time and are seemingly the result of the violent conditions he experienced during his career." AR 359. In 2007, Solomon was forced to resign from his high school teaching and coaching job because of changing behaviors, namely that he kept "losing his cool." AR 616. He has been unemployed ever since.

On October 29, 2008, an Occupational Therapist, Brian Matuszak, opined that Solomon was totally and permanently disabled ("TPD"), noting:

Mr. Solomon is not able to perform even SEDENTARY level of work secondary to his inability to sit greater than 10 mins. at one time without change in positioning, stand for greater than 2-3 mins. at one time and walk for greater than 10-15 mins. at one time, poor concentration requiring frequent redirection secondary to his focus on pain which inhibits vocational productivity, poor overall endurance inhibiting ability to maintain basic positional tolerances and sustain concentration to perform sedentary tasks over a full workday. AR 435.

B. The Plan

The Plan provides disability benefits to, among others not here relevant, retired players like Solomon who become TPD as a result of their football career and are thus unable to work ("T&P benefits"). The level of benefits paid varies depending upon when the player's disability manifested. I.e.:

· "Football Degenerative" benefits[2] are paid for disabilities stemming from a player's football career that manifest within 15 years of retirement;

See Plan Section 5.1(c), AR 023.

· Lesser "Inactive" benefits are paid for disabilities not stemming from a player's football career, or if stemming from a player's football career, that did not manifest within 15 years of retirement.

See Plan Section 5.1(d), AR 023-24.

Because Solomon retired at the end of the 1994/95 season, in order to be eligible for Football Degenerative benefits, his disability must have manifested by March 31, 2010.

C. Administrative Procedures

The Plan provides a review process for consideration of applications for disability benefits from current and former NFL players. Applications are initially considered by a two-person Disability Initial Claims Committee ("the Committee"). An applicant can appeal from an adverse Committee decision to the six member[3] Retirement Board ("the Board").

On March 11, 2009, Solomon, not represented by an attorney, applied to the Disability Initial Claims Committee ("the First Application") for T&P benefits under the Plan, claiming that he was TPD based on a variety of orthopedic impairments. AR 468-73. On May 14, 2009, the Committee denied the First Application. AR 497.

On July 13, 2009, Solomon filed an application with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for Social Security disability benefits. Pl.'s Mem. [ECF No. 23-1] at 16. This application was later[4] supplemented or superseded.

On August 3, 2009, while his SSA application was pending, Solomon appealed the Committee's denial of his T&P benefits application ("the First Appeal") to the Board. AR 513. On November 19, 2009, the Board denied the First Appeal. AR 541.

On December 12, 2010, Solomon filed a second, different application ("the Second Application") with the Committee, seeking T&P benefits under the Plan related to neurological and cognitive impairments resulting from countless helmet-to-helmet impacts sustained during his NFL career. AR 564-68. The Committee was deadlocked as to whether Solomon was TPD, and his application was deemed denied on March 9, 2011. AR 655. On April 27, 2011, Solomon appealed the denial of the Second Application to the Board ("the Second Appeal"). AR 672.

On June 21, 2011, while the Second Appeal was pending, an SSA Administrative Law Judge issued a Notice of granting Solomon disability benefits and stating:

I found you disabled as of October 29, 2008 because your impairment or combination of impairments is so severe that you cannot perform any work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

AR 680. Solomon was awarded SSA benefits retroactive to April 2009[5] and began receiving regular monthly disability benefit payments of $2, 063.00 effective August 2011. AR 686-92.

On August 4, 2011, the Board designated Solomon TPD, awarding benefits effective October 1, 2010.[6] AR 702-05. Because the Board determined that Solomon had not become TPD within 15 years of this retirement (i.e., by March 31, 2010), he was awarded Inactive level benefits. Id. The Board, however, notified Solomon that he had a right to appeal to the Board for reconsideration of his level of benefits.

On September 27, 2011, Solomon appealed to the Board seeking reclassification of benefits to the Football Degenerative category and contending that he became TPD before the March 31, 2010 cutoff date for Football Degenerative benefits ("the Third Appeal"). AR 707. On November 16, 2011, the Board rejected the Third Appeal, stating that the record did not support a finding that he had become TPD prior to the cutoff date. AR 719-21. A November 23, 2011 letter informing Solomon of the Board's denial of the Third Appeal stated that the denial was a "final decision on review within the meaning of section 503 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974" ("ERISA") and that, to challenge the decision, Solomon could file suit under ERISA § 502(a). AR 720-21.

D. Judicial Procedural Posture

On November 14, 2014, Solomon filed the instant lawsuit for denial of benefits, pursuant to ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. § 1132, [7] in response to the Board's November 2011 final denial of Football Degenerative benefits.

The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment and agree that there are no genuine issues of material fact with regard to Solomon's claim of entitlement to Football Degenerative benefits. Hence, summary judgment is appropriate in regard to that claim.[8]

II. DISCUSSION

A. Level of ...


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