Right to Unitas company is argued

Estate and eldest son disagree in court over Colt great's intent

November 07, 2003|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

A lawyer for John C. Unitas Jr. argued in state appellate court yesterday that the son of the late Baltimore Colt great should be given back the sports marketing and memorabilia company that he alleges was taken from him by his father's second wife and representatives of the Unitas estate.

Robert R. Bowie Jr., Unitas Jr.'s lawyer, told a panel of three judges in Maryland's Court of Special Appeals that Unitas Jr. is the rightful owner of the company that he and his father started a dozen years ago. He argued that Sandra L. Unitas, Unitas Sr.'s second wife, and the estate's personal representatives had no authority to take control of the business and vote him out.

"What we have here is a remarkable `bull in a china shop' move," Bowie said. "In a nutshell, your honor, I believe this is a situation where the intent of Johnny Unitas was clear up until his death and up until this was reworked by the personal representatives. The intent was for the son to run his [sports] legacy."

Stephen J. Nolan, the lawyer for Unitas Sr.'s estate, and the personal representatives of the estate of John C. Unitas, argued that not only do the representatives own the stock, but also that they had the right to vote it and oust Unitas Jr. as head of the memorabilia company.

He said Unitas Sr. wanted to give them the power to do what they thought was in the best interests of the company and that authority passed to them under Maryland law at the moment of his death.

John Unitas Jr. is trying to "rewrite a very clean and unambiguous agreement," Nolan said.

At times, the panel of judges challenged the lawyers with questions, probing for more details and clearer explanations, but mostly they listened. It could be months before the panel reaches a decision. Other arguments involving the future of Unitas Management Corp. are before a federal bankruptcy court judge in Baltimore.

The dispute spilled into the open over the summer, nine months after the legendary quarterback died of a heart attack at 69. Since then, lawsuits have been filed, allegations of financial mismanagement have been made, and Unitas Management is operating under bankruptcy protection.

At issue is control of Unitas Management, which the father and son started in 1991 to manage licensing and sports memorabilia deals for Unitas Sr. and other former athletes.

Unitas Jr. is the eldest of eight children, five from Unitas Sr.'s first marriage and three from a second marriage.

Bowie told the judges that Unitas Sr. and Unitas Jr. worked together to build the business.

"For 10 years, Johnny Unitas and his son and namesake worked side by side at the kitchen table on what was a father-and-son business," Bowie said. "This was a company that benefited everybody."

Under a shareholders' agreement, Unitas Sr. owned 90 percent of the company and Unitas Jr. held 10 percent. A $125,000 life insurance policy on Unitas Sr. was to be used to redeem the shares in the company so that it could be controlled by Unitas Jr., upon the father's death, Bowie said.

When Unitas Sr. died Sept. 11, 2002, his 90 percent control was transferred to his attorney, Charles M. Tatelbaum, and his accountant, Howard Moffet, the personal representatives of Unitas Sr.'s estate.

With control of the company, Tatelbaum and Moffet voted out Unitas Jr., as president and his wife Christine Unitas, as secretary.

Sandra Unitas, Unitas Sr.'s second wife, was named president of Unitas Management in place of Unitas Jr. Moffet was named secretary, and Tatelbaum became assistant secretary.

When Unitas Jr. and his wife failed to turn over documents, Tatelbaum and Moffet sued Unitas Jr. in Baltimore County Circuit Court in February. Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. ruled that the representatives were the owners of the company and could vote the shares.

In June, the company filed for bankruptcy reorganization, and Tatelbaum and Moffet sued Unitas Jr., claiming that he had defrauded the company and helped drive it into bankruptcy.

Bowie said after the hearing that Tatelbaum and Moffet should have taken the $125,000 to the estate and transferred ownership to Unitas Jr.

Nolan argued yesterday that Tatelbaum and Moffet used their discretion to terminate the shareholder's agreement because they believed they were acting in the estate's best interest.

He told the judges that under Unitas Jr.'s management there were "financial irregularities," and that Unitas Sr. had questions about the way the company was being managed.

Yesterday, Unitas Jr. sat outside the wood-paneled courtroom waiting for the judges to hear the case.

Unitas Jr. bristled at the allegations of wrongdoing, which were made last summer.

"My father was suspicious of me? That is a lie," Unitas Jr. said. "It is just sad. I ran this business for 12 years. To have it taken away from me unjustly is criminal."

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