LAWFUEL – The Legal Newswire – The Atlanta Falcons informed Michael Vi…

LAWFUEL – The Legal Newswire – The Atlanta Falcons informed Michael Vick and his representatives in a letter yesterday that they intend to force the quarterback to return a portion of the $37 million in bonuses that his 10-year, $130 million contract contains, the Washington Post reports.

The Falcons’ decision came as Vick formally entered a guilty plea in his dogfighting case in federal court in Richmond and then apologized “for all the things that I’ve done and that I have allowed to happen.”

“I offer my deepest apologies to everyone,” a somber-looking Vick said at a nearby hotel, his voice just above a whisper. “And I will redeem myself. I have to.”

The tussle for Vick’s money is highly complex and could involve two separate arbitrators and a federal judge. Sources familiar with the issues said yesterday the NFL Players Association will contend that, based on provisions in the sport’s labor deal and the precedent set in a recent case involving another player, the Falcons are entitled to try to retrieve no more than $6 million.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Vick indefinitely without pay on Friday.

At a news conference yesterday in Atlanta, Falcons President Rich McKay said: “With respect to pursuing his bonus money, we intend to do that. We sent out this morning a demand letter with respect to that. We will pursue it aggressively. . . . We don’t do this in some way that is spiteful at all. We do this in a way that we think is in the best interests of our football team, our franchise, our fans.”

McKay and Falcons owner Arthur Blank stopped short of saying the team would release Vick. Several people familiar with the case said they expect that to be the eventual result. But first, they said, the Falcons must keep him on the roster in an effort to force him to return a portion of his bonus money — a $7.5 million signing bonus and two roster bonuses totaling $29.5 million — paid out under the contract Vick signed with Atlanta in December 2004.

“We cannot tell you today that Michael is cut from the team,” Blank said. “Cutting him may feel better today emotionally for us and many of our fans. But it’s not in the long-term best interests of our franchise. Decisions relating to Michael’s status with the team are tied to legal, financial, contractual and personnel issues that still must be sorted out.”

Now that Vick is suspended without pay, he will not receive his $6 million salary for the upcoming season, and the Falcons will be credited with that amount on their salary cap. He would not receive the salaries in the deal for the 2008 through 2014 seasons — totaling $85 million — if he does not play those seasons. Vick gets to keep the $2 million in salaries that he totaled for the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Vick was not in default of his contract during training camp because, while Goodell ordered him not to report to camp, the commissioner excused the absence. Vick’s guilty plea and suspension now put him potentially in default of his contract and give the Falcons the legal basis to attempt to retrieve a prorated portion of his bonus money.

Because he has eight seasons remaining on a 10-year contract, the Falcons could seek the return of 80 percent of his bonus money. That potentially could leave the Falcons attempting to retrieve up to $29.6 million, or 80 percent of $37 million. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported over the weekend that the Falcons would seek $22 million. McKay declined to specify during yesterday’s news conference how much the Falcons would seek.

“With respect to how much, again I say to you that that’s something that we’ll pursue between Michael’s lawyers and our lawyers,” said McKay, who also is the club’s general manager. “It’s something we’ll try to do quickly. It’s something that, again, we won’t sit there and argue about what the amount might be.”

But a case involving wide receiver Ashley Lelie and the extension of the league’s collective bargaining agreement last year might severely limit the amount the Falcons can recover. The labor deal says that “salary escalators already earned” are not subject to being retrieved by a team.

Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who is the NFL’s official in charge of resolving disputes between management and the union arising from the collective bargaining agreement, ruled in the Lelie case that an option bonus (paid by a team to a player to activate additional option years at the end of a contract) fell under that category of “salary escalators already earned” that could not be retrieved by a team. The Denver Broncos had filed a grievance against Lelie last year. Burbank’s decision was reviewed by U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who has jurisdiction over the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.

The question in the Vick case, then, could be whether roster bonuses also fall into that category. If they do, the Falcons could be limited to seeking 80 percent of the $7.5 million signing bonus in Vick’s contract — $6 million — as reimbursement.

Richard Berthelsen, the general counsel of the NFL Players Association, declined to comment directly on Vick’s case yesterday but said: “Salary escalators already earned are not subject to forfeiture under the 2006 collective bargaining agreement. In the Ashley Lelie case, the special master and the court ruled that option bonuses fall under this category. Roster bonuses should be treated the same way by the special master and the court.”

If the Vick case follows the same course as the Lelie case, the NFL Management Council, the labor relations arm of the league office, would file a grievance on behalf of the Falcons and the case would be assigned to an arbitrator. The union likely will act as it did in the Lelie case, sources said, and have the roster bonus part of the case transferred to Burbank, under Doty’s review, while the signing bonus portion of the case would remain under the jurisdiction of the original arbitrator.

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