11th Circuit Holds That Attorneys Cannot Take Fees Out Of NFL Disability Awards

There is nothing wrong with providing legal services to retired National Football League (NFL) players.  In fact, many retired NFL players have good claims for benefits and deserve representation by competent attorneys.  However, if an attorney provides legal services in such a case involving payment through the NFL pension and disability plan, he/she should not expect to receive any legal fees directly from the plan itself.

Retired NFL players Marvin Woodson and Odessa Turner were given disability awards in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and stopped paying legal fees under their contingency fee arrangement to their attorney (they both used the same attorney) soon thereafter.  The attorney wanted to take his fees out of the disability awards, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the spendthrift provision in the pension and disability plan was clear and ambiguous – no benefits will be subject in any manner to assignment nor to other legal process for the debts of any retired players.

The NFL pension and disability plan’s spendthrift provision (Section 11.2) specifically reads as follows:

No benefit under the plan will be subject in any manner to anticipation, pledge, encumbrance, alienation, levy or assignment, nor to seizure, attachment or other legal process for the debts of any player or beneficiary, except pursuant to (a) a qualified domestic relations order under Section 414(p) of the Tax Code, (b) domestic relations order entered before January 1, 1985 that the Retirement Board treats as a qualified domestic relations order, or (c) an exception required under Section 401(a)(13) of the Tax Code.”

Ward v. NFL Retirement Board

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