Special Master Stephen Burbank ruled that if the Chiefs cut him, they do not have to pay him a $3.5 million guaranteed salary next season because he breached his contract after being suspended last season, NFL Players Association general counsel Richard Berthelsen said.
Berthelsen said Burbank ruled bonus money already earned cannot be forfeited by a player. Therefore, Johnson can keep all the money he's earned so far, though the Chiefs -- if they release Johnson -- are free from paying him any future money after the running back had two altercations in a nightclub last year.
Last month, Johnson was sentenced to two years probation after pleading guilty to two counts of disturbing the peace following two separate confrontations involving women at nightclubs last year.
Aside from the NFL suspension, the Chiefs deactivated the two-time Pro Bowler for three games.
Despite a request to be traded, Johnson was present for the start of the team's offseason conditioning program, Chiefs players said.
Burbank's ruling is expected to influence the Chiefs' decision whether to keep or release Johnson.
The NFL, in a statement released by league spokesman Greg Aiello, disagreed with the ruling, saying it incorrectly interprets the league's current collective bargaining agreement with players. Burbank failed to take into account provisions in both players' contracts stating that a portion of their bonuses would be repaid "if the player was unable to perform due to his own misconduct," the statement said.
The league added: "Today's decision incorrectly holds that the current CBA bars such provisions," while noting the ruling "underscores a serious flaw in the current system."
"It continues an unfortunate trend of permitting players who are suspended due to serious misconduct to nonetheless retain large bonus payments from their NFL teams," the statement said. "To permit players in these circumstances to retain the entirety of their bonus, representing millions of dollars, is unfair to both the clubs and other players, especially under the current salary cap system."
The league has no plans to appeal, Aiello said.
Berthelsen said Burbank's decision is in line with the agreement the union negotiated with the league in 2006.
"Our point in the CBA extension is there's no forfeiture of money already paid to the player," Berthelsen said. "A player is subject to forfeiture by some act or conduct. So you have to behave yourself in order to keep the guarantee."
Berthelsen said the only time a team can withhold money earned is if a player withholds his services.
Burbank ruled the running back has not yet earned $3.75 million in salary and bonuses due him over the next two seasons. Though the money was guaranteed as part of the contract Johnson signed in 2007, the Chiefs aren't obligated to pay the player if they release Johnson and determine he breached his contract for being suspended by the NFL for one game last season. Johnson is still on the Chiefs' roster.
Chiefs spokesman Bob Moore declined comment because team officials are still reviewing the ruling.
Johnson's agent, Peter Schaffer, said Johnson's future in Kansas City has not been discussed with the team and that the player is focused on remaining with the Chiefs.
"It doesn't impact Larry one bit with the Kansas City Chiefs and wanting to win the 2009 Super Bowl. This matter's a business decision. His entire focus is on working hard to be the best member of the Kansas City Chiefs he can be."
Berthelsen said the union argued that Johnson's salary was guaranteed, but Burbank ruled the money was not part of a signing or performance bonus and has not yet been earned. Johnson is owed by the Chiefs whatever guaranteed money he's already earned, Berthelsen said.
Burbank's ruling has potential precedent-setting effects and is expected to be a cause for debate when the NFL and the union begin negotiations on a new CBA after league owners opted out of the current deal last year.
The ruling is also likely to influence how the Cleveland Browns handle their contract with receiver Donte Stallworth, who faces charges that he was driving drunk when he killed a pedestrian last month in Miami. Stallworth was due a $4.5 million roster bonus on March 13, the day before the accident. Though Stallworth remains on the roster, it's not clear whether the team paid the bonus.
Information from ESPN.com's Bill Williamson and The Associated Press was used in this report.