MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A lawsuit filed against the NFL Players Association by retirees was dismissed Tuesday by a federal judge, who said she's "empathetic to their concerns" but ruled they had no legal right to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional post-career benefits they claimed they lost during lockout talks last year.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson issued her order from St. Paul, Minn.
Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, a former Minnesota Vikings star, was the lead plaintiff in the complaint that argued current players and their attorneys had no right to bargain with NFL owners about retiree benefits because they weren't legally a union last summer.
Michael Hausfeld, the lead lawyer for the retired players, said his group plans to appeal Nelson's decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
In an interview from his office in Washington, Hausfeld called Nelson's findings "elucidating and disappointing overall." There were several dozen ex-players, many of them Hall of Famers, on the lawsuit who felt they were cheated by the current players. They estimated between $300 million and $500 million in additional benefits they were promised in the early stages of collective bargaining agreement talks and didn't get when the labor dispute was settled last summer.
They contended they were pushed out of negotiations to streamline the mediation process despite a court order for their inclusion. Those labor talks led to the new CBA between the owners and players and saved the 2011 season.
The lawsuit named NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith, New England quarterback Tom Brady and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. Brady and Vrabel were plaintiffs on the antitrust lawsuit filed by the current players against the NFL in March before the lockout.
The union's response to the complaint was filed under seal, and the NFLPA has declined to comment on the case.
"The decision says it is clear that the active players took advantage of the retirees' situations to benefit themselves, and that's just a classical incident or consequence of the fact that they held all the marbles," Hausfeld said. "That's a sad commentary on the functioning of the union, and it's an even sadder commentary on the richest pro sport in the country."
Nelson wrote that she accepted the factual allegations by the Eller class as true but disagreed that the current players acted illegally. She ruled that since the active players were negotiating their own contract with the league, they had no obligation to take "a smaller share of the pie for themselves" in order to give the retirees a bigger slice.
The former players claimed the current players owed them a "fiduciary duty," but Nelson denied the legal existence of such a relationship.
"And there can be no dispute that a better package of benefits was in fact obtained for the retired players in the 2011 CBA as compared to those in the former CBA. No jury could reasonably find that the active players did not do better by the retired players in the 2011 CBA," Nelson wrote.
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