The Associated Press
Monday, March 14, 2011; 5:04 PM
MINNEAPOLIS -- A request by NFL players to keep the league and its teams from locking them out will be heard by a federal judge on April 6 - the first time the two sides will be in a courtroom since the labor pact fell apart.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson scheduled the hearing. The players filed their request last week, hours before the lockout took effect Saturday, along with an antitrust lawsuit will hundreds of millions of dollars at stake if it goes forward.
The case first went to Judge Richard Kyle, who recused himself for unspecified reasons. It was reassigned to Judge Patrick Schiltz, who stepped aside citing a conflict of interest because he represented the NFL in several cases as a private practice attorney.
The case may still be reassigned, even after the injunction request is settled. Deb Bell, interim division manager in the court clerk's office in Minneapolis, said cases are randomly assigned by computer.
The players want the case before U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has overseen NFL labor matters since the early 1990s and issued a number of rulings against the league.
Former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Tom Heffelfinger said there is a way for the case to still wind up in front of Doty.
"If either the court or one of the parties designates the case as a related case to one that has been previously assigned to another judge, it could get reassigned," Heffelfinger said.
The players want the case before Doty, who presided over the landmark settlement in 1993 that opened the doors for true free agency. Because that case has not been closed, Bell said, the possibility remains that the new case could be designated as related and therefore reassigned to Doty.
Nelson would have to consent to the case being reassigned, Bell said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the idea that the players would prefer Doty to handle the case is overblown.
"To us, that's not an issue," Brees said Monday. "That was something that the owners seemed to be very concerned about and focused on. For us, it's about the facts and it's about the law. And we believe those are on our side. We're not concerned about that."
The owners tried to get Doty removed for bias after his 2008 ruling against the NFL that let quarterback Michael Vick keep more than $16 million in roster bonuses from the Atlanta Falcons. Doty ruled that Vick earned his bonuses before he was convicted of dogfighting charges and sentenced to prison, and his decision was upheld on appeal.
Most recently, Doty sided with the players in a March 2 ruling, saying the league improperly negotiated TV contracts with an eye toward building $4 billion in reserves for a lockout.
There are more than two weeks before the hearing.
"There's no hard-set deadline for us," said former player Kevin Mawae, who was president of the players' union before it was dissolved on Friday to clear the way for the antitrust lawsuit. "At the end of the day, our case to decertify was to make sure our players can play football. If that means we get an injunction now or next month - as long as we have the ability to play football in the fall, that's what we want for ourselves and our fans."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had no comment.