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: ATLANTA, Georgia (AP) — Imprisoned former National Football League star Michael Vick will not have to repay a 20 million-dollar bonus to the Atlanta Falcons thanks to a federal judge's ruling on Monday.

US District Judge David Doty's ruling at Minneapolis overturned an earlier arbitrator's ruling that had allowed the Falcons to recover their money from Vick, who was unable to play after being convicted in a dogfighting scandal.

Vick, 27, was suspended by the National Football League even before his December 10 sentencing to 23 months in prison. He is in a drug rehabilitation program at Leavenworth, Kansas, in hope of cutting his time behind bars.

Vick might have to repay some portion of the 20 million dollars that came in the form of a signing bonus under NFL union rules but he could keep other bonus payments thanks to a ruling that the NFL called nonsensical.

"It makes no sense that an individual who wilfully 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.

But the NFL Players' Association called the ruling a complete victory for the union and the embattled quarterback who hopes to return to the NFL, perhaps as early as 2009.

"Standing alone, Michael's contract would have allowed the Falcons to reclaim his roster bonuses, but as Judge Doty ruled, our 2006 extension agreement prevented that by prohibiting forfeitures of bonuses 'already earned'," union general counsel Richard Berthelsen said.

"We are not only pleased for Michael, but his case sets a valuable precedent for other players as well."

The Falcons wanted the money back because they could write any repaid funds off their NFL salary cap limitations after one year.

In a reaction statement on Monday, Falcons president Rich McKay made it clear that team executives are still pondering legal moves to try and recover the money.

"As to our future legal strategies, we will meet with our legal representatives to more fully understand our options before making that determination," McKay said.

The loss means the Falcons will not recoup any of the 37 million dollars in bonus money spent upon Vick but will be unable to spend 15 million dollars in 2009 and 2010 they might otherwise have used on salaries for other talent.

"While we are disappointed by Judge Doty's decision, this ruling does not affect our salary cap management for the 2008 season," McKay said. "Any potential recovery would have only affected our 2009 salary cap.

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