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MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday overturned the NFL's suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who had pleaded no contest to charges of hitting his son with a switch, and sent the case back to the league's arbitration process for resolution.
Despite the ruling, Peterson's future remains unclear and until the matter is settled, the NFL placed the league's 2012 Most Valuable Player on the commissioner's exempt list, taking him off the field with pay.
In a 16-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge David Doty said National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell acted beyond his authority in November when he suspended Peterson until at least April 15.
Doty, siding with the players' union, said the NFL could not retroactively suspend Peterson under a new personal conduct policy announced by Goodell in December for behavior that occurred under the old code.
The NFL said it would appeal Doty's decision, calling the judge's order "incorrect."
The Vikings declined to comment on the ruling but said in a statement, "our focus remains on welcoming him back when he is able to rejoin our organization."
Doty's ruling would allow Peterson to return to the Vikings but it was unclear how the Vikings would deal with his hefty contract, which calls for him to make $13 million in 2015.
The Vikings could just retain him or, if they consider his deal too expensive, restructure his contract. If the union ultimately prevails, the Vikings would be free to trade Peterson once the NFL year begins March 10.
"This is a victory for the rule of law, due process and fairness," DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said in a statement.
Doty's ruling is the latest setback for Goodell, whose indefinite suspension of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice also was overturned. Rice had knocked out his then-fiancee during an argument at a New Jersey casino.
"The court finds no valid basis to distinguish this case from the Rice matter," Doty wrote.
Peterson pleaded no contest in Texas in November to a misdemeanor assault charge for spanking his son with a switch. He was ordered to pay a $4,000 fine and perform community service.
After Peterson's plea, Goodell suspended him until at least April 15. Third-party arbitrator Harold Henderson, a longtime NFL executive, denied Peterson's appeal of the suspension on Dec. 12, leading the players' union to file suit.
Reporting by David Bailey; Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott and Eric Beech