Browns fans, Modell move to make deal

Day in court postponed as lawyers look to settle

March 15, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

A long-awaited day in court for Cleveland Browns fans angry about the team's move to Baltimore has been postponed to allow them to pursue a settlement with Ravens majority owner Art Modell, attorneys for the two sides said yesterday.

Lawyers are discussing a deal that could require Modell to pay about $2 million to season-ticket holders from the team's final year in Cleveland. A settlement in the $6.4 million lawsuit, which had been scheduled to go to trial Monday, would end Modell's only remaining legal entanglement from his 1995 decision to move to Baltimore.

Discussions are centering on a proposal that would give the 11,000 people and companies that bought 40,000 Browns season tickets in 1995 about $50 per seat - and would give the ticket holders a chance to donate the proceeds to a youth charity.

"Art is known by everyone as a charitable man, and he very much likes the idea of there being a charitable component" to any settlement, said Mark D. Gately, a Baltimore lawyer representing the Ravens' owner.

Similarly, the lead plaintiff in the case, Browns fan Howard Beder, has insisted that ticket-holders be given the option of donating their awards to charity, said his attorney, Joshua R. Cohen.

The suit charged the team with violating Ohio's consumer protection laws and with breach of contract, alleging, for example, that Modell broke promises to keep the team in Cleveland. It was merged with another suit that charged the team, by playing poorly in the wake of Modell's announcement, with breaching its contractual obligation to provide NFL-quality football.

Most of the allegations were dismissed as the case bounced between pre-trial rulings and appellate court reviews over the past several years. In one unresolved issue, the season-ticket holders charge that Modell, by moving, breached their contractual right to renew their tickets for the next year.

Cohen said this right of first refusal was an inducement to buy season passes during "lean years" to avoid being shut out should the team later become a hot ticket. He pointed out that his clients bought tickets for the 1995 season despite the Browns' lack of success in the mid-1990s and despite the diminished interest in the team compared to the Indians' first postseason appearance in four decades.

The ticket holders argue that the right to renew tickets is similar to owning a personal seat, and an expert witness is prepared to testify they are worth a total of $6.4 million to the Cleveland fans, Cohen said.

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