Cleveland Browns running back Willis McGahee is helped from the...

Cleveland Browns running back Willis McGahee is helped from the field after getting injured in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots on Dec. 8, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. Ten retired NFL players, including McGahee, accused the league of lies, bad faith and flagrant violations of federal law in denying disability benefits in a potential class action lawsuit filed Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Baltimore. A federal judge in Maryland on Thursday, March 21, 2024, refused to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses the NFL of flagrantly violating the league's disability plan by denying valid claims. Credit: AP/Steven Senne

PHILADELPHIA — A lawsuit accusing the NFL’s disability plan of violating its duty to retired players by routinely denying valid injury claims can proceed to trial on most counts, a federal judge in Maryland has ruled.

The lawsuit, filed last year, accuses officials who oversee the program of bad faith and flagrant violations of federal law. U.S. District Judge Julie R. Rubin said the suit can move forward against the board, but not against Commissioner Roger Goodell or trustees individually, as they were not accused of wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the 10 retired players who signed onto the potential class action called the ruling Wednesday “a huge win” for those subject to what they called “systemic injustice.”

“We look forward to continuing to shine a light on this betrayal by the NFL, holding the plan fully accountable and correcting this broken system so it is fair for players moving forward,” lawyers Chris Seeger and Sam Katz said in a statement on Thursday.

The board has six voting members while Goodell serves as the non-voting chairperson. An NFL spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Seeger is no stranger to battles with the league — he also represented players in concussion cases that led to a settlement that's topped $1 billion in payouts.

The NFL has said it expected annual payouts for the disability plan to reach $330 million last year.

New York Jets safety Eric Smith (33) watches from the...

New York Jets safety Eric Smith (33) watches from the sideline during the third quarter of an NFL preseason football game against the Houston Texans on Monday, Aug. 15, 2011, in Houston. Ten retired NFL players, including Smith, accused the league of lies, bad faith and flagrant violations of federal law in denying disability benefits in a potential class action lawsuit filed Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Baltimore. A federal judge in Maryland on Thursday, March 21, 2024, refused to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses the NFL of flagrantly violating the league's disability plan by denying valid claims. Credit: AP/David J. Phillip

The program grew out of the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement between the players and the union, and was hailed as a way to help ailing former players. A successful claim can lead to payments of $65,000 to $265,000, but plaintiffs lawyers say few retirees see the top amount.

The former players say they were denied benefits even though their time in the league left them with lingering physical or cognitive injuries that make their lives difficult and sometimes excruciating.

The lawsuit also alleges that the doctors who examine players are more likely to get repeat referrals from the program if they deny claims. One neuropsychologist who was paid more than $800,000 examined 29 former players and denied their claims in every case, according to the lawyers.

The judge ruled that the lawsuit can now move forward to discovery, when the two sides exchange evidence. She said the plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the board disregarded the plan’s stated goals, failed to consider the entire record in evaluating claims and failed to offer reasoned decisions.

Co-lead players' lawyer Christopher Seeger, left, speaks with members of...

Co-lead players' lawyer Christopher Seeger, left, speaks with members of the media after a hearing on the proposed NFL concussion settlement outside of the U.S. Courthouse on Nov. 19, 2014, in Philadelphia. Ten retired NFL players are accusing the league of lies, bad faith and flagrant violations of federal law in denying disability benefits in a potential class-action lawsuit filed Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Baltimore. A federal judge in Maryland on Thursday, March 21, 2024, refused to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses the NFL of flagrantly violating the league's disability plan by denying valid claims. Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

The plaintiffs include Willis McGahee, a first-round pick in 2003 who spent 11 seasons in the NFL. McGahee said he's had more than a dozen surgeries for injuries he suffered as a running back, has dark moods and struggles to play with his young sons, but his claim was denied.

Eric Smith, a longtime safety for the New York Jets, is another plaintiff. He said his brain injuries from football still cause blackouts and violent episodes.

“There were times I would blackout and wake up … and I’m bleeding, there are holes in the wall. My wife and kids are crying,” Smith said on a videoconference call last year. “I went down a dark path.”

And Mike McKenzie said he’s been denied disability payments even though he has to spend his days in dark rooms with headaches and has constant pain after suffering head injuries during his 11 years with the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.

The other former players who signed on as plaintiffs are Jason Alford, Daniel Loper, Jamize Olaware, Alex Parsons, Charles Sims, Joey Thomas and Lance Zeno.

More football news

ONE-DAY SALE26¢ for 5 6 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME