A federal appeals court in northern Georgia has ruled against a law firm’s claim to former NFL players’ retirement benefits, and in favor of an ERISA pension and welfare plan.

A three-member panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed 3-0 to uphold a lower court ruling in favor of The Retirement Board of the Bert Bell/Peter Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, a retirement system for ex-players governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 — and against attorney Kurt R. Ward, Atlanta, GA.

The Ward Firm brought suit against retired NFL players, Odessa Turner and Marvin Woodson, after they failed to pay a percentage of their retirement benefits in legal fees. After the former players failed to appear in court, Ward was awarded default judgment for all benefits from the Bell/Rozelle Retirement Plan.

The Bell/Rozelle Retirement Board refused to pay Ward based on the plan’s spendthrift provision which provided, “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.”

A court approved the spendthrift provision which Ward later appealed, claiming the policy’s language was ambiguous.

The appeals court unanimously denied Wards claim and affirmed the lower court’s ruling stating, “The Ward Firm’s strained attempt to create ambiguity where none exists is unavailing. We agree with the district court that the language of the spendthrift provision is clear and unambiguous.”