The city of Cleveland is pinning its hopes to block the Browns' flight to Baltimore on a lease agreement that it contends requires them to play all their home games in Cleveland through 1998.
But lawyers for the Browns say the team would fulfill the obligations of the contract simply by paying off the remaining three years on the lease.
Cleveland challenged the Browns' move yesterday by filing a complaint in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, where Judge Kenneth R. Callahan almost immediately granted a temporary restraining order barring any move until a hearing Nov. 20.
The complaint was filed hours before Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced the Browns' agreement to move at a 12:30 p.m. news conference with team owner Art Modell.
Speaking in Baltimore yesterday, Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White said he ordered lawyers to file legal action because Modell was violating a lease agreement.
"We filed it based on the advice of our lawyers who believe there is a binding obligation signed by Art Modell to perform in a certain manner," White said at a news conference at the Marriott Inner Harbor. "He indicated today at 12:30 that he does not intend to perform in that manner. We've been wronged. We went to court today to seek redress."
White also said he was encouraged by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's assurance that Cleveland would get a hearing before the NFL owners, who, by league bylaws, must approve the move by a three-fourths majority. White said he was hopeful the owners would vote down the move.
The Browns are part of a three-party agreement to play home games at Cleveland Stadium for the next three years.
However, two of those parties are controlled by Modell. He is part-owner and president of the Cleveland Stadium Corp., which acts as an intermediary by renting the stadium from the city and in turn subleasing it to the Browns.
The Stadium Corp. agreed in a 25-year lease with the city in 1973 to obtain a sublease from the Browns, assuring that the team would play its home games in Cleveland through the end of 1998, according to the complaint.
"Therefore, the Browns' guarantee to stay in Cleveland runs through Dec. 31, 1998," the complaint says.
But Robert C. Weber, a lawyer for the Browns, said the team would fulfill its part of the agreement by paying rent for the next three years. "The basic position of the Browns is that the team is like any tenant," Weber said. "The tenant has the right to move out, so long as the tenant makes good on lease payments."
Under the contract, the Browns' minimum annual rent payment is $200,000, he said.
Alison L. Asti, general counsel to the Maryland Stadium Authority, said Cleveland is unlikely to win in court, because it does not have an agreement with the team. At worst, she said, a judge could force the Browns to play in Cleveland through 1998.
"That would be the worst-case scenario, and I can't envision it," Asti said. "That would be bad for the city and bad for the team and bad for the fans."