July 24, 2008

More Players Call Foul on NFL Pension in U.S. District Court in Baltimore

By Danny Jacobs

The National Football League's pension system continues to pay players less than they are entitled to for disabilities caused by on- field injuries, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore claims.

The pension suit against the league is the third one filed by attorney Cyril V. Smith, who won a verdict of more than $1.5 million for the family of the late "Iron Mike" Webster in 2005. The decision was affirmed by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Time after time, the defendants have defied both the requirements of its own pension plan, and the rulings of both this court and the Fourth Circuit," the newest complaint states.

Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, declined to comment.

The current litigation involves three former players: Pio Sagapolutele, 38; Sean Smith (no relation to Cyril Smith), 43; and Bruce Schwager, 75.

Sagapolutele and Smith were denied full disability payments by the plan's retirement board despite third-party doctors finding the players' disabilities surfaced soon after they retired, the lawsuit alleges.

Schwager, a Chicago Cardinals' reserve from 1955 to 1959, was denied benefits because the NFL claimed it had no record of his service.

Cyril Smith, a partner with Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Baltimore, said the players in the latest lawsuit contacted him because of his previous pension cases, including Webster's. The stories are all "shockingly similar," he said.

"This is a problem that hasn't gone away and won't go away until deep-seated changes are made to the pension plan," he said.

Webster was diagnosed with brain damage in 1998, seven years after he retired. Webster's family argued his injuries were a direct result of his football career; the pension plan argued the injuries did not surface until well after his playing days. A similar lawsuit filed last year on behalf of another former player was settled out of court last month.

Sagapolutele was forced to retire in 1999 because of arthritis; Sean Smith, in 1991, because of an undiagnosed broken hip, according to the lawsuit.

The injuries have made it difficult for them to find work, and doctors found their disabilities dated back to the end of their football careers, according to the complaint. But in both cases the pension plan's retirement board awarded less-than-full benefits in finding the men's disabilities only surfaced years after their careers ended, according to the complaint.

Sagapolutele, a seven-year veteran, applied for full benefits in 2003 and initially was denied any benefits by the board, according to the complaint. The board later amended its ruling to award him lesser benefits based on his disability starting April 2004, a decision Sagapolutele unsuccessfully appealed last year, according to the complaint.

Sean Smith, who played for three years, applied for full benefits in March 2000. He was awarded lesser benefits in October 2001 after the board ruled he was not disabled before September 2001, according to the complaint. His appeal also was denied.

The third plaintiff, Schwager, was on the placed on the Chicago Cardinals' reserve list between 1955 and 1959 because of injury and service in the Navy, according to the lawsuit. Schwager, who now suffers from dementia, applied for full benefits in 2004 but was denied after the board said it had no record of him on any team roster, according to the lawsuit.

Originally published by Danny Jacobs.

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