By | The Associated Press –
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jonathan Vilma returned to federal court on Friday where a judge is hearing arguments on the NFL's motion to dismiss the Saints linebacker's lawsuit seeking to overturn his bounty suspension.
It's not clear when U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan will rule, but if she does not dismiss the lawsuit, she could potentially rule on Vilma's request to be allowed to temporarily return to the Saints while the case proceeds.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended Vilma for the entire 2012 season, saying the Saints linebacker was among the ring leaders of a program that offered Saints defenders improper cash bonuses for injuring opponents.
Vilma, several teammates and Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt have testified that Vilma never paid or accepted money for injuring another player.
Vilma was one of four current or former players who have been suspended in connection with the league's bounty probe of the Saints. Teammate Will Smith, a defensive end, got four games, while defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was docked eight games. Linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended for three games.
Smith, Hargrove and Fujita are being represented by the NFL Players Association, which also has filed suit in federal court in New Orleans seeking to have the suspensions overturned.
Vilma's attorneys have argued that Goodell made biased public statements about the linebacker's involvement in the bounty scandal well before the process of player discipline began, making it impossible for the commissioner to be an impartial arbitrator as called for in both the NFL's collective bargaining agreement and federal labor law.
Vilma also is suing Goodell individually for defamation.
The players union is arguing that Goodell did not have jurisdiction to appoint himself the arbitrator in the bounty matter because the accusations included on-the-field activity that, under the league's labor deal, is supposed to involve an arbitrator other than the commissioner.
The union also argues that the CBA does not allow suspensions as punishment for pay-for-performance pools for big plays, the only improper activity to which current or former members of the Saints have admitted publicly or under oath.
Both Vilma and the union have argued that the NFL has failed to turn over all of the evidence required in the matter, noting that the league has disclosed only about 200 pages of the nearly 50,000 pages of documents it claimed to have compiled in the bounty investigation.
While the NFL stands by its findings, league attorneys have not challenged testimony by Vilma and other witnesses in federal court who have denied the existence of pay-to-injure program. Rather, they have treated that testimony as if it were irrelevant, and have cited case law backing their argument that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to interfere in a process that was collectively bargained. NFL attorneys have noted that multiple system arbitrators have already agreed that Goodell has followed the very policies for imposing discipline to which players agreed in the league's labor agreement.
Berrigan, however, allowed the case to continue and asked for more legal briefs after a July 26 hearing in which she noted she has some concerns about whether Goodell really did follow proper procedures.