(CN) - Professional football quarterback Michael Vick can keep $16.22 million in bonuses demanded by the Atlanta Falcons after he was suspended for participating in a dogfighting ring, the 8th Circuit ruled.
Vick inked a contract with the Falcons in 2006, agreeing to play for the team through 2014. His contract included two "roster bonuses," which are doled out when a player appears on the team's roster by a certain date.
Vick earned $29.5 million in roster bonuses, $16.22 million of which the team demanded back when Vick pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges after playing two seasons.
The NFL commissioner suspended Vick suspended indefinitely without pay.
The National Football League, on behalf of the Falcons, sought a declaration that recovering a pro-rated portion of Vick's bonus money wouldn't violate the anti-forfeiture provision of his contract.
The provision was part of a 1993 antitrust settlement between team owners and players, who claimed that cost-cutting measures virtually eliminated free agency and competition among clubs.
The district court allowed Vick to keep the bonus money, saying he'd fully earned it when he appeared on the team's roster in 2006.
The NFL moved to vacate that ruling, arguing that the district court can no longer enforce the settlement agreement without meddling in the collective bargaining process. The league also argued that U.S. District Judge David Doty should have recused himself, because he created a "perception of bias" against the NFL with press comments and his meetings with counsel for the players' union, the National Football League Players Association.
Doty was quoted as having said, "[NFL owners] pretend they're getting beaten around. Well, they did initially, but they had a position that was not legally sound." Then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue declined to comment, but Doty told reporters, "I think if you ask Tagliabue, he would say, 'The whole thing has come out our way.' Because, even though they complain about it ... all they've done is make tons of money."
The district court refused to vacate its ruling for Vick, and a three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based federal appeals court affirmed.
In the panel's view, the comments didn't create a perception of bias. The judges also rejected the NFL's claim that Vick's roster bonus was really a signing bonus subject to forfeiture.
Faced with a forfeiture provision it deemed "ambiguous at best," the 8th Circuit upheld the lower court's decision to let Vick keep his bonus money.
After nearly two years in prison, Vick was cleared to return to professional football. He plays for the Philadelphia Eagles.
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