Ex-NFL player, Gator gets win in disability dispute

Florida News

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — A federal appeals court on Thursday revived a lawsuit filed by a former NFL and University of Florida football player who is seeking disability benefits because of injuries suffered on the field.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a district judge to reconsider the case in which Darren Mickell, who played nine years in the NFL after leaving the University of Florida in the early 1990s, is seeking total and permanent disability benefits under a NFL players retirement plan.

Mickell contends that he suffers from physical issues affecting his knees, hips, back, and shoulders and has cognitive problems because of blows to his head, according to Thursday’s ruling. The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan denied his application for total and permanent disability benefits, causing Mickell to take the dispute to federal court in South Florida.

U.S. District Judge James Cohn last year upheld the decision by the retirement plan. But the appeals court, in a 19-page opinion, said the retirement plan’s board did not properly consider evidence that Mickell submitted in seeking the benefits and did not consider the “cumulative effects” of Mickell’s medical issues.

“Because the board failed to consider the combined effect of Mr. Mickell’s many physical and mental impairments, it ignored an important consideration in the question of whether he was disabled,” said the appeals court ruling, written by Judge Beverly Martin and joined by Judges Robin Rosenbaum and Richard Tallman. “On remand, the district court should consider all evidence of Mr. Mickell’s conditions together, including any evidence of Mr. Mickell’s functional capacity, to determine whether the combined effects of his impairments render him disabled.”

Mickell, a defensive end, played for the Kansas City Chiefs, the New Orleans Saints, the San Diego Chargers, and the Oakland Raiders before retiring from the NFL in 2001. He applied for disability benefits in 2013 under the retirement plan, which uses a committee to review claims. The committee had doctors — known as “plan neutral physicians” — evaluate Mickell before denying the application. That prompted him to appeal to the plan’s board, which also turned him down.

In last year’s lower-court ruling siding with the plan, Cohn pointed to the opinions of the doctors.

“Given that the administrative record includes the comprehensive reports of seven plan neutral physicians (including two orthopedists, two neurologists, two neuropsychologists, and one psychiatrist) that evaluated plaintiff and unanimously concluded that he was capable of employment, it is clear that defendant’s decision to deny T&P (total and permanent) benefits was not arbitrary and capricious,” Cohn wrote.

But in Thursday’s opinion, the appeals court disagreed, saying the plan’s board “wholly failed to consider record evidence that contradicted the opinions of the plan neutral physicians.”

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