Lawyers: Sacking Vick Would be Legal, Costly

The Atlanta Falcons could fire Michael Vick, who owns a house that has been the subject of a probe into illegal dog-fighting, and face few, if any, negative legal consequences, according to three labor and employment lawyers. Whether the Falcons would cut ties with their star quarterback is unclear at this time. While the dog-fighting investigation has caused bad publicity, Vick has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.

Epstein Becker & Green partner Ken G. Menendez, who advises companies in employment and contract disputes, told the Daily Report, an Atlanta legal newspaper, that under the terms of his contract, “I don’t think the Falcons would terminate Vick, even if they have the legal right to do so”. “He’s just too big of an investment,” Menendez added. Vick, who signed a $130 million contract in December 2004, is one of the NFL’s highest-paid players; to date, Vick has received about $59.5 million of this total. Vick could stand to lose the remaining $70.5 million, which is payable in yearly base salaries over the next seven years, if the Falcons void his contract.

There are consequences facing the Falcons. The Michael Vick incidents (the water bottle and the dog-fighting allegations) can only be a public relations nightmare for Falcons owner Arthur Blank. And more options may come up if things take a turn for the worse. For example, if Vick is charged with participating in dog-fighting, or if he’s indicted by a grand jury, the standard NFL contract would allow the team to suspend Vick for at least four games. The Falcons could also use a suspension as justification for terminating Vick’s contract. The Dallas Cowboys cut quarterback Quincy Carter in August 2004 after he was suspended by the NFL for four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Carter filed a grievance, which was unsuccessful.

Despite those remedies, if the Falcons cut Vick this year, either before or during the season, the team would be wrapping themselves in a financial straight-jacket for the 2008 season. Cutting Vick would burden the Falcons with about $15 million in so-called “dead money”— money that couldn’t be used to sign other players in 2008. On the flip side, even though the Falcons would be burdened with dead money under the salary cap, the team would save “real money” — about $6 million — because they wouldn’t have to pay Vick’s remaining salary. In addition, cutting Vick could remove a major distraction for a team that’s trying to recover from a losing season in 2006. Fisher & Phillips partner D. Albert “Bert” Brannen, who represents employers in contract issues, said that, “Home Depot (Arthur Blank is CEO) wouldn’t want to endure the bad press and the distraction for their business while they waited for the CEO to defend himself.” “They’d say to him, ‘You’re fired, you take care of your problem.'” Vick’s contract also probably allows the team, or even the NFL itself, to terminate his contract, Brannen said.

In the standard NFL player contract, paragraph 11 says, “if said player has engaged in personal conduct reasonably judged by Club to adversely affect or reflect on Club, then Club may terminate this contract.” If the team terminates Vick’s contract, it would be subject to binding arbitration, according to paragraph 19 of the contract. If the Falcons terminated Vick’s contract, Vick and his lawyers will likely base a legal challenge on the stipulation in the NFL collective bargaining agreement that says the maximum penalty is a four-game suspension without pay, states Michael J. “Mike” Florio, a West Virginia labor and employment attorney. But the Falcons would probably counter with an argument focusing on the language in paragraph 11 of the contract.

Vick could also file a grievance with the NFL to seek the remainder of his pay. If Vick signed with another team for less money, he could file a grievance seeking the difference between his new contract and the Falcons’ contract, Florio said. The chance of a grievance being successful is low, Florio said, because of a new player-conduct policy introduced in April by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell seems intent on wielding a heavy hand in suspending players who misbehave. If Vick were unsuccessful with a grievance or arbitration, he could sue the NFL under the Labor-Management Relations Act, accusing the league of a breach of the collective bargaining agreement, Florio said. Vick could also sue the NFL Players Association for breach of the duty of fair representation. “This is the worst possible time to be a bad guy in the NFL,” Florio said.

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