Edwin F. Hale Sr., the Baltimore developer and former CEO of First Mariner Bancorp, scored a victory Wednesday when a Baltimore County judge ruled that the operators of Royal Farms Arena are improperly using billboards that belong to him.
Circuit Judge Mickey J. Norman, who issued the ruling, has yet to decide what damages are owed to Hale's company, Arena Ventures. Hale's $5 million lawsuit named as defendants arena operator SMG Holdings of West Conshohocken, Pa., and the advertising firm that replaced him at the arena, Legends Sales and Marketing of Wilmington, Del. SMG has run the city-owned arena since 1999.
A ruling on damages could come in the next few weeks, lawyers on both sides said.
"We are extremely pleased with the court's ruling and its recognition of Ed's ownership of the billboards," said Hale's attorney, Ramsay M. Whitworth. "If it weren't for Ed Hale, there wouldn't be any billboards on the arena."
Whitworth is a partner in the firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin, White, LLC.
Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson, whose office is representing the defendants, called the ruling "mysterious." He predicted an appeal.
"Inevitably there will be a trip to Annapolis," he said. "I don't think [Wednesday's] ruling is the end of the road."
Hale's suit primarily pertained to large billboards posted on the arena's exterior, which were the subject of a zoning fight. About 10 years ago, Hale funded a legal defense of the billboards against a challenge from nearby businesses, including lawyer Peter G. Angelos' firm.
Hale owns the Baltimore Blast, the professional indoor soccer team that plays in the arena.
In late 2012, according to the suit, SMG informed Hale that that he would no longer have any right to sell advertising at the arena. Instead, SMG was hiring Legends to sell advertising, the suit states. As a result, Hale's company has suffered "loss of advertising revenue" and its reputation has suffered, according to the suit.
Whitworth cast the case as a battle of "David versus Goliath."
Legends is a "huge international company owned by the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees, the two most valuable sports teams in American history," Whitworth said. "They came into our city, they took Ed's right to sell advertising on the billboards, and then, as if that weren't enough, they actually tried to take away all of his rights to own the billboards."
Nilson rejects that narrative. He said the city encourages Hale to remove the billboards at the arena.
"If you do own something, you don't get to leave it screwed and bolted to someone else's building until you feel like eventually removing it," Nilson said.
The suit is Hale's latest clash with city officials.
In 2013, citing a soured relationship with city government, Hale announced that he was moving his businesses — the Baltimore Blast Corp. and Hale Properties LLC — to Baltimore County. The Blast continue to play games at Royal Farms Arena but no longer practice at the Clarence H. Du Burns Arena in Canton, which Hale used to manage.