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Schlichter v. Bell

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 15, 2017



          Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge

          The Plaintiff brings this action against the Defendant under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), alleging that the Defendant erred by deciding that he was not entitled to receive a service credit for 1983. This cause is before the Court on the parties' cross- motions for summary judgment (Dkt. Nos. 12 & 14). Both motions are fully briefed, and the Court, being duly advised, now DENIES the Plaintiff's motion (Dkt. No. 14) and GRANTS the Defendant's motion (Dkt. No. 12) for the reasons set forth below.

         I. STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the admissible evidence presented by the non-moving party must be believed, and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the non-movant's favor. Zerante v. DeLuca, 555 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2009) (“We view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.”). When the Court reviews cross-motions for summary judgment, as is the case here, “we construe all inferences in favor of the party against whom the motion under consideration is made.” Speciale v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield Ass'n, 538 F.3d 615, 621 (7th Cir. 2008) (quotation omitted). “‘[W]e look to the burden of proof that each party would bear on an issue of trial.'” Diaz v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 499 F.3d 640, 643 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Santaella v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 123 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 1997)). However, a party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must show what evidence it has that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial. Johnson v. Cambridge Indus., Inc., 325 F.3d 892, 901 (7th Cir. 2003). Finally, the non-moving party bears the burden of specifically identifying the relevant evidence of record, and “the court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Ritchie v. Glidden Co., 242 F.3d 713, 723 (7th Cir. 2001).


         A. The Plan and Material Plan Terms

         The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (the “Plan”) is the product of collective bargaining between the National Football League (“NFL”) Players Association and the NFL Management Council and is subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) and the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”). ERISA is the “comprehensive and reticulated statute” governing employee benefit plans. The LMRA complements ERISA and allows a “multiemployer plan” to be jointly administered by an equal number of employee and employer representatives, which in this case is the Plan's Retirement Board.

         The Retirement Board is the named fiduciary and administrator of the Plan; it is composed of an equal number of NFL Management Council representatives and NFL Players Association representatives; and it has broad authority to interpret the Plan and determine claims for benefits. The Plan expressly grants the Retirement Board “full and absolute discretion, authority and power to interpret, control, implement, and manage the Plan, ” including the power to “[d]efine the terms of the Plan…, construe the Plan…, and reconcile any inconsistencies therein.” Dkt. No. 13-1 at 49.

         Three Plan provisions are material to this case. The first is Section 1.35, which defines the “Players” who participate in the Plan: “‘Player' means any person who is or was employed under a contract by an Employer to play football in the League.” Dkt. No. 13-1 at 13. The second is Section 1.11(a), which defines “Credited Season”: “‘Credited Season' means a Plan Year in which a Player . . . is an Active Player (including an injured Player who otherwise satisfies the definition of “Active Player”) on the date of three or more Games.” Dkt. No. 13-1 at 9. The third is Section 1.1, which defines “Active Player”: “‘Active Player' means a Player who is obligated to perform football playing services under a contract with an Employer.” Dkt. No. 13-1 at 8.

         B. Schlichter's Application and the Retirement Board's Decision

         Schlichter played for the Indianapolis/Baltimore Colts during the 1982, 1984, and 1985 seasons. Schlichter did not play a single game in 1983 because the NFL Commissioner suspended him for that entire year for violating the NFL's rules against gambling. Plan records therefore show that Schlichter was an Active Player in, and earned service credit (“Credited Seasons”) for, the years 1982, 1984, and 1985.

         On April 27, 2015, Schlichter filed an application seeking Credited Seasons for 1983 and 1986. Schlichter argued that he should get a Credited Season for 1983 because, “[d]espite the fact that the NFL suspended him, [his] contract still obligated him to play for the Colts during the 1983 season, ” and that same contract prevented him from playing in the Canadian football league or the United States Football League. Dkt. No. 13-2 at 27. Schlichter said he should get a Credited Season for 1986 because he “played in a number of pre-season games for the Buffalo Bills and was on the active roster in 1986 until he was cut.” Id.

         On May 14, 2015, the six voting members of the Retirement Board-three NFL Management Council representatives and three former players-unanimously denied Schlichter's application. The Retirement Board concluded that Schlichter was not entitled to a Credited Season because he was not an Active Player in 1983 or 1986. The letter explaining the Retirement Board's decision notified Schlichter of his right to seek further administrative review.

         On August 4, 2015, Schlichter appealed the Retirement Board's initial decision. On appeal, Schlichter again argued that he is entitled to a Credited Season for 1983 because, despite never actually playing football that year due to his season-long suspension, he was ...

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