By Peter Casciano, Esq.
It’s the morning after the Super Bowl XLVIII and I can’t think of a more appropriate time to discuss this topic: disability benefits and the most violent sport in America.
I was very interested to read an article in Sports Illustrated by Michael Rosenberg entitled: ‘Permanently disabled’, Harrison fighting for benefits the NFL took away. Mr. Rosenberg’s article tells the story of Dwight Harrison, a defensive back with a 10-year career in the 1970s NFL.
Harrison’s Experience with NFL Disability Benefits
In 1993, well after his playing days ended, Harrison applied for and was approved for NFL disability benefits.
A 6-person panel (three representing the owners and three representing the players) is charged with administering the NFL’s disability retirement plan. Just like many of my clients, he was awarded a monthly benefit amount going forward and retroactively awarded disability benefits back to 1984. He was paid a six figure lump sum award.
Because the panel determined that Harrison was not disabled due to injuries sustained on the NFL field, he was placed in the 4th tier of disabled players, the lowest award level.
Harrison appealed but lost because the panel determined that his brain injury was sustained in college, not the pros, and that his depression was of recent origin.
Harrison appealed again, lost again, and this time was admonished by the panel for failing to properly provide medical records, financial records and attend an independent medical exam. Furthermore, they cited an alleged start-up business (a Rodeo) that Harrison was piloting out of his backyard and all benefits were terminated.
Lastly, the same retroactive method used initially to pay him benefits back to 1984 was used to retroactively terminate his benefits. The NFL alleges that Harrison now owes them money for his receipt of disability benefits. Harrison’s overpayment amount is said to be north of $350,000. According to Mr. Rosenberg’s article, the most Harrison made any one season in the NFL was $50,000.
NFL Disability Benefits & the Obstacles Our Disabled Clients Face
Why did I feel the need to blog about this? Because I’m shocked? Because I cannot believe a disability plan could be administered this way? No. No, because I see these same issues every day in my disability practice.
Now I confess I know nothing about the facts of Harrison’s case, although the results are saddening to hear. What I do know is that our disability claimants face the same results, the same obstacles, and the same difficult medical issues as Harrison.
First, cognitive and emotional symptoms are extremely slippery facets of any case. I’ve no doubt that this played into the panel’s decision to find his illnesses were caused by college ball, not the NFL. They tend to be moving targets. Any claimants relying on these symptoms and limitations face an uphill battle due to the difficulty to diagnose, treat and especially measure.
Second, when claimants are saddled with emotional and/or cognitive problems, it can be common to see them miss deadlines, forget appointments, think slowly or show disorganization. The hoops Harrison needed to jump through during his appeal, which are annoying for a well-functioning adult, are borderline impossible for those suffering with his illnesses and appealing alone.
Third, the fear Harrison references in Rosenberg’s story sounded so familiar to me. Most of my clients talk about that same fear—about how they live on eggshells when their claims are being reviewed. About how they constantly look over their shoulder worrying if the insurance company is conducting surveillance. About how checking the mail for a decision is excruciating. So much is at stake.
Fourth, Harrison’s Rodeo story is all too familiar to me and some of my clients. The administrator of any disability plan (OPM, SSA, insurance company) will sometimes hook onto whatever possible to terminate benefits.
For example, a client of mine was a figurehead officer of her family’s business, for which she received no money and did no work. Benefits terminated. Another client’s husband owned and operated a business out of their home, for which she provided no services and received no pay. Benefits terminated. The list goes on.
Americans with Disabilities
It is my sincere hope that Harrison’s story, in the national spotlight because it’s the NFL, makes all of us stop and think about issues related to disability and disabled Americans. While oversight of all disability programs is of course needed, we also need to protect those that deserve these benefits.
I firmly believe that any individual’s largest source of pride comes from being able to do a job, and do a job well. When that ability is taken away because of medical reasons, let’s not further subject them to unfairness and disrespect.
If you or a loved one is disabled and cannot work, you need to appeal a disability determination, or any of these issues sound familiar, please contact me right away at 301-244-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.