Federal judge rules Vick can keep more than $16 million in bonus money

Updated: February 5, 2008, 2:10 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jailed quarterback Michael Vick can keep all but $3.75 million of the nearly $20 million in bonus money he received from the Atlanta Falcons following a ruling Monday by a federal judge.

Inside The Vick Ruling

•  Barring a successful appeal, Michael Vick can keep all but $3.75 million of the nearly $20 million in bonus money he received from the Atlanta Falcons.

•  Under the NFL players' contract, as interpreted by U.S. District Judge David Doty, teams can't recover roster bonus money, because a player earns it when they make the roster. However, they can recover signing bonus money because that's governed by separate rules.

• The case was argued in Minneapolis because Doty has handled cases involving the NFL's collective bargaining agreement for nearly 20 years.

The Falcons sought to recover the bonuses after Vick pleaded guilty to federal charges in a dogfighting operation. The bonuses were paid from 2004-07.

A special master ruled in October the Falcons were entitled to recover the bonuses. The Falcons argued Vick used proceeds from a contract he signed in 2004 to finance his illicit activities.

The NFL Players Association had asked a federal judge to overturn the special master's decision that Vick should forfeit the bonus money because of his guilty plea.

But U.S. District Judge David Doty of Minneapolis ruled that recovery of most of the bonus money by the Falcons would violate the NFL collective bargaining agreement. The agreement does not allow roster bonus money to be forfeited once it's been earned, the judge wrote.

Doty, who has handled cases involving the collective bargaining agreement for nearly 20 years, compared interpreting the relevant section of the contract to "alchemy" late last year.

The NFL criticized Doty's ruling. The league has suspended Vick indefinitely without pay.

"It makes no sense that an individual who willfully violates his contract is entitled to be paid tens of millions of dollars even though he is in jail and providing no services whatsoever to his employer," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement.

Vick's personal attorney, Lawrence Woodward Jr., said Vick was happy with the ruling but understands there could be appeals.

"He's grateful for some good news, but he realizes he needs to keep doing all the right things to get back to playing football," Woodward said.

At a November hearing, union attorney Jeffrey Kessler contended Vick's "roster bonus" should be treated the same as a "performance bonus," which can't be forfeited under the agreement. The league maintained the roster bonus should be treated like a "signing bonus allocation," which could be forfeited.

Doty ruled that once Vick made the Falcons' 80-man roster, he earned the bonus money and the team cannot demand forfeiture. However, he wrote, the Falcons can recover $3.75 million of his 2006 signing bonus, which is governed by other rules and is something the union did not challenge.

Kessler welcomed the decision.

"The Players Association is obviously delighted with the result," Kessler said. "It vindicates our view that a clear deal was made, that once players earn their compensation, that it is no longer subject to being taken back."

While the distinction about whether Vick's roster bonuses were guaranteed or not guaranteed may be important for salary cap purposes, Doty wrote, "it does not dictate the outcome in a forfeiture context."

Any money recovered would be credited to Atlanta's future salary cap.

Doty also ruled that the Falcons may not use state law, even in a grievance procedure, to try to recoup Vick's bonus money.

Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay issued a statement saying the team is disappointed with the ruling, but that it won't affect the Falcons' salary cap for the 2008 season.

"Any potential recovery would have only affected our 2009 salary cap," McKay said. "As to our future legal strategies, we will meet with our legal representatives to more fully understand our options before making that determination."

Vick received a 23-month jail sentence. He entered a minimum-security prison in Leavenworth, Kan., last month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.