Cason v. Nat'l Football League Players Ass'n, Case No. 1:20-cv-01875 (TNM)

CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia
Writing for the CourtTREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.
PartiesAVEION CASON, et al., Plaintiffs, v. NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, et al., Defendants.
Decision Date07 May 2021
Docket NumberCase No. 1:20-cv-01875 (TNM)

AVEION CASON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, et al., Defendants.

Case No. 1:20-cv-01875 (TNM)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

May 7, 2021


MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs Aveion Cason and Donald Vincent Majkowski each played in the NFL for years. Both now suffer from "total and permanent" disability and receive monthly benefits as retired players. They argue that provisions in a new collective bargaining agreement ("CBA")—negotiated between NFL teams and the union representing active players—will decrease or altogether eliminate their benefits. Plaintiffs invoke the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA") and the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA") to halt implementation of these provisions and obtain other relief. Defendants—the association representing NFL teams, the active players' union, and two benefit plan boards—move to dismiss the case. They contend that Plaintiffs lack standing to pursue some claims because their alleged injury (the loss of benefits) is too speculative, too attenuated, or not redressable. Defendants also argue that Plaintiffs' claims fail on the merits.

The Court determines that Plaintiffs have indeed failed to show Article III standing as to some of their challenges and failed to state a claim as to others. It will therefore dismiss the case.

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I.

Defendant National Football League Players Association ("Players Association" or "NFLPA") is the union that represents current NFL players in collective bargaining. See Pls.' Opp'n to Defs.' Mots. to Dismiss ("Pls.' Opp'n") at 16 & n.3, ECF No. 39; Def. NFLPA's Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss ("NFLPA's Mot.") at 10, ECF No. 36-1.1 Defendant National Football League Management Council ("Management Council" or "NFLMC") is an association of NFL teams that bargains on the teams' behalf. See Pls.' Opp'n at 16-17; Def. NFLMC's Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss ("NFLMC's Mot.") at 10, ECF No. 37-1. As relevant here, the Players Association and Management Council ("bargaining parties") negotiated two CBAs—one in 2011 and one in 2020. See Decl. of Michael L. Junk in Supp. of Board Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss ("Junk Decl.") Ex. C ("2011 CBA"), ECF No. 38-4; Junk Decl. Ex. F ("2020 CBA"), ECF No. 38-7.

Through these CBAs, the Players Association and Management Council have established and maintained two multi-employer plans under ERISA: the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan ("Retirement Plan") and the NFL Player Disability and Neurocognitive Benefit Plan ("Disability Plan") (collectively, "the Plans"). Board Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss ("Board Defs.' Mot.") at 7, ECF No. 38.

As relevant here, the Plans provide "total and permanent" ("T&P") disability benefits to players who are "totally disabled," meaning they are "substantially prevented from or substantially unable to engage in any occupation or employment." Junk Decl. Ex. A ("Retirement Plan Doc.") Art. 5.2(a), ECF No. 38-2; Junk Decl. Ex. B ("Disability Plan Doc.") Art. 3.1(c), ECF No. 38-3. Plaintiffs each receive T&P disability benefits. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 10-

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11, ECF No. 34. While the Plans provide benefits to four categories of players, the only category relevant here is "Inactive A," to which both Plaintiffs belong. Id. ¶¶ 131, 141.

The relevant difference between the two Plans is which players they cover and how. If a player submitted his application for benefits before 2015, the Retirement Plan funds part of his T&P disability benefit (usually a minimum of $4,000 per month) and the Disability Plan pays the rest ($11,250 per month less the benefits from the Retirement Plan). NFLMC's Mot. at 14; Board Defs.' Mot. at 9. These players are called "Article 4 Players." Am. Compl. ¶ 33. In contrast, players who requested benefits after 2014 receive all benefits ($11,250 per month) from the Disability Plan. NFLMC's Mot. at 14; Board Defs.' Mot. at 10. These players are "Article 3 Players." Am. Compl ¶ 29. The minimum monthly benefit for Inactive A players—either Article 3 or 4—is thus $11,250 per month. See Board Defs.' Mot. at 10. Majkowski is an Article 4 Player, and Cason is an Article 3 Player. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 131, 141.

The Plans contain duration-of-benefit provisions, which state that benefits "will be payable until the earliest of (a) the cessation of the Player's total and permanent disability, (b) the termination of his benefits under [a separate section providing requirements for the continuation of benefits], or (c) the Player's death." Retirement Plan Doc. Art. 5.9; Disability Plan Doc. Art. 3.11; Board Defs.' Mot. at 10. The Plans also contain reservation-of-rights provisions, allowing the bargaining parties to jointly amend or terminate the Plans. See Retirement Plan Doc. Art. 10.2 (stating that the Players Association and Management Council, "when acting jointly, may amend th[e] Plan in any respect and may terminate th[e] Plan"); Disability Plan Doc. Art. 10.1 (stating that the Disability Plan may "be amended or terminated by joint action of the NFLPA and the Management Council while there is a [CBA] in effect").

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Defendants Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan Board ("Retirement Board") and NFL Player Disability and Neurocognitive Benefit Plan Board ("Disability Board")—collectively, "the Boards"—are the Plans' fiduciaries. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 14, 16. Each Board has six voting members: three appointed by the Players Association and three appointed by the Management Council. Id. ¶¶ 12-13.

The Plans were, until recently, maintained under the 2011 CBA. The Players Association and Management Council then agreed to the 2020 CBA. The 2020 CBA did not affect the Retirement Plan's T&P disability provisions. See 2020 CBA Arts. 53, 60.

The 2020 CBA included two provisions ("the 2020 Amendments") relating to T&P disability benefits under the Disability Plan that are central to the parties' dispute. First, the "Social Security offset," which reduces benefits by the amount of Social Security benefits that a player receives. Id. Art. 60, § 4. This provision was set to take effect in January 2021. Id. Second, the "whole person" evaluation requirement, which (as its name suggests) states that a player's eligibility for benefits will turn on a comprehensive evaluation. Id. Art. 60, § 5. Previously, a Social Security determination of disability also established a player's eligibility for T&P disability benefits. Id. Art. 60, § 6. The CBA makes the "whole person" evaluation process effective in April 2024. Id. Art. 60, § 5.

Plaintiffs sue on behalf of themselves and a putative class comprising "[a]ll participants qualified to receive [T&P] disability benefits at the time of the disability amendments to the 2020 [CBA] between the NFLPA and NFL Management Council." Am. Compl. ¶ 114 (cleaned up). The operative complaint raises seven claims under ERISA and one claim under the LMRA. Id. ¶¶ 129-207. In Counts 1 and 2, Plaintiffs claim that their T&P disability benefits vested for life and that the 2020 Amendments impermissibly reduced them. Id. ¶¶ 129-48. Counts 3 and 4

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charge that the terms of Plaintiffs' benefits crystallized when Plaintiffs qualified for them, and Defendants cannot alter them. Id. ¶¶ 149-64. Counts 5-7 claim breaches of fiduciary duty related to alleged misrepresentations the Players Association made about benefits. Id. ¶¶ 165-89. And finally, Count 8 alleges that the Players Association and Management Council breached the CBA. Id. ¶¶ 190-207. Plaintiffs seek various forms of equitable relief, including an injunction prohibiting Defendants from implementing the new T&P disability provisions. See id. at 58-60.

Before the Court are Defendants' motions to dismiss. The motions are ripe for disposition.2

II.

Defendants move to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Facing a 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff has the burden to establish the predicates to jurisdiction, including "the irreducible constitutional minimum of standing." Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). When considering a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the Court "assume[s] the truth of all material factual allegations in the complaint and construe[s] the complaint liberally, granting plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (cleaned up).

Because "a Rule 12(b)(1) motion imposes on the court an affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority," though, a plaintiff's factual allegations "will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion than in resolving a 12(b)(6)

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motion for failure to state a claim." Grand Lodge of Frat. Ord. of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F. Supp. 2d 9, 13-14 (D.D.C. 2001) (cleaned up). In deciding this motion, the Court "may consider materials outside the pleadings." DePolo v. Ciraolo-Klepper, 197 F. Supp. 3d 186, 189 (D.D.C. 2016). If a court determines that it lacks jurisdiction for any claim, it must dismiss that claim. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3).

To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Hurd v. District of Columbia, 864 F.3d 671, 678 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (cleaned up). A plaintiff must plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

The Court accepts the complaint's factual allegations as true and grants plaintiff "all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." L. Xia v. Tillerson, 865 F.3d 643, 649 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (cleaned up). The Court need not, however credit "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (cleaned up). The Court considers "only the facts alleged in the complaint,...

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