Ohio judge blocks move of Browns Modell says delay for trial on lease won't alter '96 plans

November 25, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

An Ohio judge temporarily blocked the Browns yesterday from moving to Baltimore by ordering the National Football League team to abide by its current lease until a dispute over the document can be settled in a trial.

The ruling, although disappointing to the team, does not prevent it from moving here eventually.

"We expected this. We're going to be in Baltimore, and we're going to be in Baltimore soon," said team owner Art Modell. "It was a no-win situation for us. We're still going ahead with the process of moving."

An attorney for Mr. Modell declined to say if the ruling would be appealed to a higher court -- something that is difficult to do in such cases under Ohio law -- but did say that the team would attempt to have the order overturned.

"We're very disappointed in the ruling, and we intend to take the steps that are necessary to see that it is overturned," said Dennis M. Kelly, an attorney with Jones, Day Reavis & Pogue in Cleveland.

A lawyer for the city of Cleveland acknowledged that the victory was only the first of several required before the team can be forced to stay until its lease at Cleveland Stadium expires in 1998.

"This is just one step in a many-step process to keep the Browns in Cleveland," said George von Mehren, an attorney with Squire, Sanders & Dempsey who represented the city.

"We were confident going in and we're very pleased with the judge's decision. We're winning so far," Mr. von Mehren said.

The city has not taken any steps, aside from lobbying the NFL, that would prevent the team from moving to Maryland after 1998.

Yesterday's ruling, following three days of hearings last week, stemmed from arguments by the city that the team is contractually bound to play its next three seasons at Cleveland Stadium and that merely paying off the remaining rent would not do enough to protect the city's image and treasury.

The team subleases the stadium from the Cleveland Stadium Corp., an operating company also controlled by Mr. Modell. The Cleveland Stadium Corp. leases the stadium from the team through a contract that runs through Dec. 31, 1998.

The Browns, who have signed a legally binding contract to move to Baltimore, say they are free to move because they were released from their contract by the Cleveland Stadium Corp. in a deal signed Oct. 27, the same day the team agreed to move to Baltimore.

In issuing a preliminary injunction requested by Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Kenneth Callahan did not formally side with the city's view of the lease arrangement, but agreed that it was sufficiently compelling to warrant holding the team in place until the matter can be settled at trial.

"The guy is an elected judge. What's he going to do, be remembered as the judge that let the Browns leave?" Mr. Modell said.

Now in his third year on the bench, Judge Callahan, 40, faces re-election in November. He was appointed to his post by Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor who joined with other state officials in a "friend of the court" brief filed in this case in support of the city.

The judge asked the two sides to try to agree on a trial date, and, if they cannot, to provide scheduling information to him by the end of business on Monday.

The team had unsuccessfully attempted to move the case to appeals court sooner by asking that last week's hearings be essentially declared the trial. That way, the resulting order would have been a "permanent injunction," which is easier to appeal than the "temporary injunction" the judge issued.

Unless the two sides settle the matter out of court, the trial could be held in a few months and, if the team loses, a fast-track appeal could take place a month later.

"This was not unexpected from a Cleveland judge," said Dianna Rosborough, press secretary to Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "However, we are extremely confident that ultimately Mr. Modell will be free to move his team from Cleveland so this doesn't change our plans in the least bit. We have a strong, legally binding contract."

Ground-breaking on a $200 million stadium, to be built adjacent to Oriole Park, would not be delayed by whatever the Ohio courts do in the lease matter, said Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag.

The stadium authority's contract with the Browns calls for ground-breaking as soon as NFL approval is given. The matter is up for a vote of NFL owners in mid-January, and Mr. Modell says he is confident he will win the required three-quarters approval. (If he does not, he is bound under his agreement with Maryland to sue the league.)

The stadium is expected to take 32 months to build, and its opening would not be delayed as long as ground is broken by March, Mr. Moag said. The team intends to play its first two seasons in Baltimore at Memorial Stadium, where the Colts played before moving to Indianapolis in 1984.

Yesterday's ruling could, however, delay the team's ability to sell season tickets, lease sky boxes and enter into other contracts that would take effect before 1999, Mr. Modell said.

Mr. Modell said he suspects the city of Cleveland eventually may be willing to work out an agreement on the lease dispute.

"Who knows if in the long run they aren't just hoping for something to bargain with?" he said. "They can't want us there as a lame duck."

Sun staff writer Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

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