Cleveland takes Md., Browns to court 'Conspiracy' by team and state is charged

countersuit mulled

January 13, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The city of Cleveland sued Maryland and the Browns yesterday for more than $300 million, alleging that the state's efforts to lure the National Football League franchise amounted to an illegal conspiracy.

The action, although publicly played down by Maryland officials, set off an immediate escalation of rhetoric between the two cities less than a week before an NFL vote to decide which one gets the Browns.

Cleveland Mayor Michael White spoke darkly of a conspiracy to deny his city the riches and prestige of an NFL team. He said his attorneys will try to force Gov. Parris N. Glendening to testify under oath in a deposition about his role in the matter and may add him as a defendant.

"They conspired to break our lease and steal our team -- plain and simple, open and shut," Mr. White said in a Cleveland news conference made accessible by conference call to reporters around the country.

Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag said he was "taking off the gloves" and accused White of using the courts to obscure his bungled efforts to keep the franchise. Mr. Moag said the state may countersue, accusing Cleveland of filing a frivolous lawsuit, and could try to use the new filing to force the entire action onto the friendlier turf of federal court.

"Maryland did not steal the Browns. Mayor White lost them," Mr. Moag said.

And Browns owner Art Modell predicted the action could backfire on Cleveland, turning off the league as it tries to help return football to the city.

"It's bizarre, and I think the league has to take note of this next week. I know I would think about it if I were sitting there," Mr. Modell said.

The 30 NFL team owners are scheduled to consider the team's application to move at a special meeting in Atlanta on Wednesday. The NFL declined to comment.

Yesterday's legal filing, an amendment to an earlier suit Cleveland filed Nov. 6 against the Browns and its affiliated stadium operating company, adds as defendants Mr. Moag, the Maryland Stadium Authority and Mr. Modell.

"Art Modell and John Moag got together one day, got together on a secret runway, with a secret handshake, and a secret knock, and a secret deal," Mr. White said.

The agreement to move the Browns was signed Oct. 27 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The new complaints allege a conspiracy by the team and Maryland to get the Browns to break their lease in Cleveland. The lawsuit also accuses the team of breach of contract and breach of a fiduciary duty assumed when the team agreed to operate the city-owned Cleveland Stadium.

Cleveland wants a combination of punitive and compensatory damages, including profits the team will earn if allowed to move to Baltimore, and legal costs. Mr. White estimates these damages at $300 million or more.

An earlier filing in the lawsuit already had resulted in a temporary court order blocking the team from moving to Baltimore until the lease obligations can be sorted out in court.

A trial on making that order permanent is scheduled to begin Feb. 12, and Cleveland has asked the judge to go ahead with that proceeding but to schedule a later trial before a jury.

"We are determined to protect the rights of the people of the city of Cleveland, and we will pursue whatever legal recourse is available to us," Mr. White said.

Mr. Moag said the state expected a lawsuit, and even thought of filing a pre-emptive one: "We decided not to take that hostile step. Now the gloves are coming off."

He said Marylanders have so far empathized with Cleveland's plight, and noted that he offered last month to meet with Mr. White to advise him on procuring a new team. The offer was rejected.

"It is unfortunate that Mayor White has decided to attack a sister city in order to deflect attention from his responsibility for the Browns' reluctant move from Cleveland," Mr. Moag said. "Now Mayor White wants Marylanders to pay for his mistakes, his negligence and his failure to prevent the loss of the Browns."

Mr. Moag said Mr. Modell's offer to compensate Cleveland for lost rent was sufficient to meet his obligations under the lease, meaning nothing was breached and the state did not encourage a contract be broken. Cleveland has said money is inadequate compensation and is demanding the team to play the final three seasons of its 30-year lease.

Because the filing adds an out-of-state defendant, the Browns now may be able to petition the case to federal court. The current Cleveland judge in the case faces his first re-election in a few months.

Mr. Moag predicted the additional legal action would make it harder for Mr. White to settle the case, something Mr. Moag believes is still likely.

Asked about a possible settlement, Mr. White said no offers have been made or solicited but acknowledged he is in touch with the NFL headquarters. "We've kept our lines open with their staff and our staff to look at alternatives," he said.

Mr. Glendening, in a written statement, suggested Mr. White may have filed the suit to help himself politically.

"But as a practical matter, over the past decade there have been numerous relocations of National Football League teams, and it has been clear that the courts have refused to interfere in such matters," Mr. Glendening said.

James Gray, assistant director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said that cities often file a number of lawsuits to block franchise moves but that Cleveland's legal strategy has been especially exhaustive.

The lease issues are fairly straightforward, but the breach of fiduciary duty and civil conspiracy charges are novel and untested approaches, he said.

Frederick Nance, Cleveland's chief attorney in the case, acknowledged the unusual nature of their claims. "We're breaking some new ground here, but we are confident we are on solid legal footing," Mr. Nance said.

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