Arguments concluded in Browns case City's relationship with team is at heart of Cleveland hearing

Ruling expected soon

Testimony focuses on club's impact

November 23, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Regardless of how the judges rule, one thing has been proven in the legal blitz launched against the Cleveland Browns: The relationships between American cities and their sports teams are complex and passionate.

Everyone from city hall to a stadium pizza vendor has gone to court against the team, which has announced its intention to move to Baltimore early next year.

Yesterday, a county judge heard closing arguments in the city of Cleveland's case to keep the team in the city for at least two more years. A ruling is expected soon.

Legal experts give many of the cases little chance of success, but the flurry of filings -- at last count it was 10 lawsuits -- clearly demonstrates the remarkable impact the franchise has had on the citizens of Cleveland over the past 50 years.

"People are so angry and feel helpless. They may not have an expectation of success, but they sue anyway," said James Gray, assistant director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Cleveland is fighting to keep the Browns through at least the end of a lease at the stadium. The pizza vendor wants compensation for the sales he will lose. At least two season-ticket holders have initiated class-action suits, saying, in essence, that they didn't pay to see the Baltimore Browns limp through the end of a lame-duck season here.

And a taxpayer has asked the county courts to demand the $950 billion he calculates the city will lose over the next three years if the team moves (the figure also includes punitive fines).

Next week, the unions representing 450 workers at the stadium plan to join the fray, filing suit because the team did not give proper notification under federal plant closing laws. The unions, represented by the AFL-CIO, also may sue for breach of contract.

"The team expected litigation. It has been and continues to be comfortable in the legal basis of what it's doing," said team spokesman David Hopcraft.

However, he said, the team is concerned about the delays such rear-guard skirmishes could produce.

"We're anxious to move on to Baltimore," Hopcraft said.

The biggest concern now is the city's request for a court order keeping the team in Cleveland through at least 1998.

In closing arguments yesterday, attorneys for the city's two most prestigious law firms debated arcane legal theory involving subleases, third-party beneficiaries and the role of the judiciary in controlling private businesses.

The team claims it has a lease not with the city, but with a stadium operating company also controlled by team owner Art FTC Modell. That company, Cleveland Stadium Corp., has a lease with the city, but has let the team out of its sublease.

The city argues, however, that the sublease was a requirement of the Stadium Corp.'s lease, making the two documents one. And merely paying off the balance of the rent could not repair the damage the city would suffer, it says.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Kenneth Callahan said he will issue his ruling soon on the matter. He could release the team to move and tell the parties to fight out their lease dispute in court -- something the city wants to avoid because of the difficulty of retrieving a team once it has crossed state lines.

Even some Browns backers are worried the judge instead will order the team to stay until the matter can be settled at trial, something that could take months and delay the construction of Baltimore's stadium.

Besides the city's legal case, the team also has to worry about the home-court advantage: The judge is a longtime Clevelander who could put a promising career in peril by letting the team leave.

Callahan, whose office on the 22nd floor of the Cleveland Justice Center has a panoramic view of the stadium the Browns are leaving, is in his third year on the bench. In less than a year, he faces his first re-election.

"He's between a rock and a hard place," said Gray.

"That's a very real consideration. He's going to think very long and hard about his future," Gray said.

Gray said the lease case appears to be Cleveland's strongest, even though a victory would be only temporary. Other options, such as seizing the team through eminent domain, have not fared well in other cities, including Baltimore when it tried to keep the Colts from moving to Indianapolis.

And the season-ticket suits, though creative, are tough to argue when the team is still playing in town. The suing fans want up to $10 million in refunds.

"So long as ticket holders have an opportunity to attend a game at Municipal Stadium, I think it's 'Too bad, so sad,' " Gray said.

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