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Magistrate meets with players' counsel for pre-mediation talks

 MINNEAPOLIS -- The federally mediated settlement talks between the NFL and the players got underway on Tuesday morning in the chambers of Chief Magistrate Arthur Boylan, with counsel for the Brady and Eller classes meeting with Boylan.

Judge Susan Nelson, who heard the Brady class' request for an injunction to the lift the NFL lockout last Wednesday, ordered the mediation on Monday and consolidated the cases of Brady et al v. National Football League and Eller et al v. National Football League.

The players' contingent included three lawyers from the Brady class and a six-man team, including Eller himself, from the Eller class. The Brady class was represented by NFL Players Association outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler, outside counsel Jim Quinn and local counsel Barbara Berens. The lead attorney for the Eller class, Michael Hausfeld, was also in attendance.

Boylan will use the next two days to get up to speed on the particulars of the issues between the parties, hearing the players' side on Tuesday, and the league's side on Wednesday, before bringing both sides together for the first time on Thursday morning.

The talks represent the first negotiating sessions between the NFL and the players since 16 days of discussions at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service before mediator George Cohen ended on March 11, which was also the day the NFL imposed the ongoing lockout and the NFLPA decertified itself as a union.

Nelson ordered both sides to keep the mediation confidential. The players got their wish, with the talks held under court supervision and not in the collective bargaining setting.

NFLPA spokesman George Atallah declined comment as did NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

At a hearing last week about the injunction request, Nelson urged the sides to get "back to the table" and said negotiations should take place at "not the players' table, not the league's table, but a neutral table, if you will."

The next day, the players and owners both expressed a willingness to talk, though they disagreed on where and how they wanted to do it. The players said they were willing to engage in mediation overseen by Nelson. The NFL said it wanted to resume talks with Cohen in Washington.

Nelson said at the hearing she would take "a couple of weeks" to rule on the injunction. On Monday, she noted that her order to resume mediation "will not have the effect of a stay on this litigation," and that she would rule "in due course."

Nelson's order called for legal counsel for the parties "as well as a party representative having full authority" to attend. She also said that participation in the mediation "and any communications conveyed between the parties in this process, shall not be admitted or used against any party in any other proceeding or forum, for any purpose."

That would appear to address the players' concern that any talks held after the dissolution of the union could be construed as collective bargaining -- and thus bolster the NFL's claim that the dissolution was a "sham" merely intended to strengthen the players' position at the bargaining table.

Last week, NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash sent a letter to Quinn, with a copy going to Nelson. Pash wrote that the league is "prepared to give reasonable and appropriate assurances" that the players' legal position -- not a union protected by labor laws but a group of players suing under antitrust laws -- would not be compromised through any new talks.

Nelson's order referred to the mediation "as a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution," a legal term for the revival of negotiations. Perhaps it will lead to some real progress.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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