Team files lawsuit to renegotiate terms

Updated: November 26, 2003, 6:04 PM ET
Associated Press

SAN DIEGO -- In a move that surprised and angered city officials, the San Diego Chargers filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles asking a judge to determine whether the team has triggered a clause that allows it to renegotiate its lease at Qualcomm Stadium.

The suit against the city of San Diego was filed late Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles Superior Court. The Chargers didn't tell San Diego city officials or announce it until Wednesday morning, stirring up an already contentious issue.

Mayor Dick Murphy called the lawsuit a "sneak," and he and City Attorney Casey Gwinn met the team's move with a verbal blitz.

"If the Chargers want to fight, I'm willing to give them one," Murphy said. "If they perform as well in the court room as they do on the field, I would say we'll kill them."

The Chargers are currently 2-9, tied for the worst record in the NFL. They haven't had a winning record or made a playoff appearance since 1995.

Murphy called the lawsuit "an insult to the city of San Diego" and criticized the team for filing it as the region tries to recover from last month's devastating wildfires.

"For the Chargers to try to take advantage of the people of San Diego is outrageous," Murphy said.

The Chargers want a judge to decide whether the team has met the complicated financial formula that would allow them to renegotiate their lease and free them to either pursue a proposed new stadium or leave town.

The trigger clause can only be activated if the team's salaries and benefits exceed its salary cap, which team officials say has been surpassed.

Murphy called a closed session of the City Council for Monday to discuss legal strategy.

City negotiators have seen the Chargers' books but haven't commented publicly on the team's ability to trigger. However, Gwinn said he has "grave doubts that they have presented any evidence that they can trigger."

Gwinn also pointed out that the Chargers' suit states that "The City's refusal either to acknowledge or challenge the validity of the Renegotiation Notice will significantly impair the Chargers' ability to conduct effective negotiations with third parties."

Said Gwinn: "Let's be clear about what the Chargers want -- to move to Los Angeles and make more money. Don't insult the intelligence of the fans and the taxpayers by telling us you want to stay, and then sue the taxpayers for the right to leave."

There has been speculation for two years that the Chargers want to move to Los Angeles, which has been without the NFL since the Raiders and Rams left before the 1995 season. The Chargers played their first season, 1960, in Los Angeles before moving to San Diego.

The Chargers' lead negotiator, attorney Mark Fabiani, said the team has been contacted by groups in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Long Beach, but has told them it wants to try to make a deal in San Diego.

Fabiani, a former special counsel to the Clinton White House, said a provision in the team's 1995 lease agreement allows either side to file a suit anywhere in California.

"I think everyone realizes football is an emotional issue," Fabiani said. "We want these decisions made based on the facts, not based on emotion."

The Chargers' law firm is based in Los Angeles.

Asked about filing a suit in a city that could gain a football team, Fabiani said: "This is not in the newspaper every day in L.A. It's not on TV at all in L.A. It is not a big issue in Los Angeles by any stretch of the imagination."

The 1995 lease, intended to keep the team in town until 2020, allows the team to reopen contract negotiations if certain conditions are met.

As part of the lease, the city expanded Qualcomm Stadium in 1997. Three years later, Chargers owner Alex Spanos said the team needed a new stadium to remain financially competitive with other NFL teams.

The two sides have been negotiating in private since March. The Chargers have twice extended negotiating deadlines at the city's request, and that period now ends in May.

If there's no deal by then, the Chargers will have 18 months to seek an offer from another city and present it to San Diego city officials. San Diego would then have 90 days to match that offer.

The Chargers have offered to submit the trigger issue to binding arbitration but the city has refused, saying it doesn't want to forfeit its right to demand a jury trial.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press