Wes Collins prevails for Shirley Johnson, widow of Vaughan Johnson

May 12, 2023

Woman's Claimed Marriage To Ex-NFL Star Found Illegitimate

Law360 (May 11, 2023, 4:11 PM EDT) -- A North Carolina federal jury found that a woman who claimed to be the wife of a deceased NFL player in order to stake a claim to his retirement benefits wasn't legitimately married to him, according to a verdict sheet docketed Thursday.

Following a three-day trial, the jury found on May 5 that Faith Dove did not have a valid marriage with Vaughan Johnson, a former NFL linebacker who played in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Johnson died in 2019, sparking the legal battle between Dove and Shirley Johnson, who claimed to be his actual wife.

The decision leaves Dove out of what could be hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in retirement benefits and Shirley Johnson set to receive the money.

Court records show Shirley Johnson married the ex-NFL player in 2006, but Dove claimed that she married him in 1993 and that her opponent's marriage was illegitimate. The two filed similar lawsuits in 2020 that were consolidated, each claiming the money and invoking a federal law dealing with retirement benefits.

The trial occurred May 2 to May 5, with the jury coming to its verdict on the final day. The clerk entered the decision in the federal court filing system and informed the women's attorneys on Thursday.

The jury had been asked to determine whether Dove and the former NFL player had a valid marriage; whether Dove had abandoned her marriage under North Carolina law; and whether Dove voluntarily separated from Vaughan Johnson and lived in adultery. With the jury finding that the marriage was illegitimate, the other two questions became irrelevant.

The verdict ends, for now, a saga rife with back-and-forth accusations and competing stories.

Dove had claimed that she and the ex-NFL player met in 1980 while attending North Carolina State University, where he played football, according to court records. The two had a romantic relationship throughout the decade and had children. Vaughan Johnson went on to play in the United States Football League and later the NFL.

Dove had claimed that the two married in 1993 in Louisiana. She presented to the court what she said was her Louisiana marriage license, complete with what appeared to be signatures and witnesses.

Dove further claimed that she separated from Vaughan Johnson in the 1990s to escape his alcoholism and abuse, but never divorced him. Vaughan Johnson still visited her and their children regularly over the decades, she said.

Meanwhile, in her lawsuit, Shirley Johnson claimed she married the former NFL star in 2006, and they remained married until his death from heart and lung disease in 2019.

Dove and Shirley Johnson sued each other in the fall of 2020, bringing claims under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The act and the NFL's policy require a deceased person's retirement benefits to go to their spouse.

The two sides tried to settle, but the talks failed, according to court documents.

As the lawsuit proceeded, Dove had argued that Shirley Johnson's 2006 marriage was invalid because it was a bigamist union. Since Dove and Vaughan Johnson had never gotten a divorce, any new marriage wouldn't be legitimate, she claimed.

Shirley Johnson hit back with claims that Dove's marriage was a sham. The Louisiana marriage license was forged and witnesses to the marriage were made up, she alleged, saying the officiant wasn't legally allowed to perform a wedding at best and nonexistent at worst, Shirley Johnson said. She also pointed to Vaughan Johnson's name being misspelled "Vaughn" on the purported license.

Additionally, Dove had abandoned the marriage and lived in adultery against North Carolina law, Shirley Johnson argued, which would make her a "wrongdoing spouse" and negate her from having spousal benefits. Shirley Johnson also told the court that Dove had been convicted of falsifying business records in a New York state court, and in 2005 listed her marital status as single in bankruptcy court.

Dove had asked U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle to stop Shirley Johnson from telling the jury about her forgery conviction, but the judge denied that request.

Dove has 30 days to appeal the decision.

Vaughan Johnson was an NFL linebacker with the New Orleans Saints from 1986 to 1993, where he was part of a heralded defensive group known as the Dome Patrol. He reached the Pro Bowl four times before playing his final season in 1994 with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2011, he was elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Counsel for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Shirley Johnson is represented by Wesley A. Collins of Harvell & Collins PA.

Dove is represented by Jacob M. Morse, Jeremy R. Williams and Amanda Claire Murphy of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman PLLC.

The case is Johnson v. Dove, case number 4:20-cv-00180, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.


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