Former San Diego city attorneys sue Chargers, NFL over team’s move to L.A.
Two former San Diego city attorneys have followed through on their threat from last week and filed a lawsuit against the National Football League and its 32 team owners, accusing them of violating their own rules governing team relocations.
The legal complaint was filed by former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre and his law partner and former deputy Maria Severson.
It accuses league and team officials of failing to negotiate in good faith over more than 10 years, while city officials worked to find a new playing field for the San Diego Chargers or to upgrade the team’s longtime home, Qualcomm Stadium.
The city of San Diego is also a named defendant in the suit.
Filed in San Diego Superior Court late Monday, the case was brought by San Diego taxpayer and business owner Ruth Henricks. It seeks unspecified damages and restitution paid to the city of San Diego rather than a cash settlement for the plaintiff herself.
The 35-page complaint begins with a quote from Chargers owner Dean Spanos, who pledged after a major stadium renovation in 1997 that he would not seek a new deal unless the team hit hard financial times.
“Only in the case of severe financial hardship for the team — defined by very narrow, specific and confining conditions — could we request to renegotiate with the city,” Spanos said at the time.
Instead, the lawsuit asserts, the team earned millions of dollars and saw its value soar even while Spanos demanded a new stadium before leaving for Los Angeles in 2017.
Neither the NFL nor the Los Angeles Chargers immediately responded to a request for comment.
Aguirre, who served as San Diego’s elected city attorney from 2004 to 2008, modeled his complaint after a similar suit filed by attorneys in St. Louis, where the Rams played for more than 20 years before relocating to Los Angeles.
That legal dispute was resolved in November with the NFL and team owners paying the city of St. Louis a $790 million settlement.
The San Diego case was filed one week after Aguirre advised Mayor Todd Gloria that he would pursue a claim against the NFL and its team owners if the city did not.
Gloria, who served two terms each on the City Council and in the California Assembly before being elected mayor in 2020, issued a joint statement Tuesday with City Attorney Mara Elliott that expressed skepticism about the lawsuit.
“Suing the National Football League is a costly and uphill battle, as Mr. Aguirre himself has stated in interviews, and his lawsuit on behalf of taxpayers is at its earliest stage,” the statement said. “Given that City taxpayers would be the recipient of any damages and restitution the court may award if litigation prevails, we wish Mr. Aguirre success in this effort.”
After the St. Louis deal was announced, Gloria told a citizen that San Diego was not in a position to pursue the same legal strategy.
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“Unfortunately, previous administrations in the city of San Diego twice waived the city’s rights to any claim against the NFL and the Chargers for relocation after the 2008 NFL season,” Gloria replied to the man by email.
“The attached 2004 and 2006 lease amendments contain this information,” he added. “Thank you again for your email and for staying engaged on this important issue.”
The complaint said the League and the Chargers failed to negotiate in good faith with home cities before moving teams. It also alleges that they wrongly profited by withholding critical information from San Diego officials as they worked to retain the team.
“The Chargers’ statements suggesting the Chargers Football was looking for a way to stay in San Diego in and after 2006 were false,” states the complaint written by Severson, a top deputy to Aguirre when he was an elected official.
“Chargers Football owner, Dean Spanos, had already made up his mind to move the team to Los Angeles, according to the former Chargers Football’s chief operating officer,” she wrote.
“The city relied on the false representations and in fact, spent considerable time, effort and funds to work on plans to meet the Chargers’ demands for additional public taxpayer subsidies.”
The lawsuit recounts a series of efforts undertaken by four different San Diego mayors and other public officials designed to keep the Chargers in San Diego, where the team moved in 1961 after a single season in Los Angeles.
San Diego voters agreed to build a city-owned stadium for the team soon thereafter, and Jack Murphy Stadium opened before the end of the decade.
The Chargers and San Diego Padres shared the Mission Valley until the early 2000s, when the Padres moved into a new home field downtown. The facility that became known as Qualcomm Stadium under a naming-rights deal hosted three Super Bowls and two World Series.
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Beginning with former Mayor Susan Golding and continuing through the administrations of Dick Murphy, Jerry Sanders and Kevin Faulconer, the lawsuit said, San Diego leaders worked to find a new home for the Chargers.
They signed a deal in 1995 to upgrade the stadium and add 10,000 or more seats, the complaint said. They agreed to guarantee sales of at least 60,000 tickets for every Chargers home game.
They formed a task force to examine options for a new stadium, and they twice agreed to amend the earlier deal to keep the Chargers in San Diego, the complaint said. They also offered the team development rights for a portion of Mission Valley to offset the cost of a new stadium and asked voters to approve a tax deal for a downtown venue.
All the while, the value of the San Diego Chargers rose exponentially, the lawsuit alleges.
When Spanos bought the team in 1984, he paid between $40 million and $72 million, the complaint said, and in 2015 the team value was estimated at $1 billion.
Present-day estimates now say the Chargers are worth up to $3 billion, even though they are tenants in SoFi Stadium, the home of the Rams and host of Super Bowl LVI in just over two weeks.
The NFL adopted specific rules governing relocation terms in the 1980s.
Among other things, the relocation policy says the league “favors stable team-community relations” and “clubs are obligated to work diligently and in good faith to obtain and to maintain suitable stadium facilities,” the complaint said.
Despite the accommodations by San Diego city officials over many years, the lawsuit said, the Chargers ownership decided to leave as early as 2006. The complaint cited a quote that former NFL official Jim Steeg of San Diego gave to Union-Tribune columnist Bryce Miller last month:
“I think (owner) Dean Spanos made up his mind to move in 2006,” Steeg said. “It just took him 10 years to do it.”
Steeg, a former NFL senior vice president, was the Chargers’ executive vice president chief operating officer from 2004 to 2010.
The case has yet to be assigned to a judge or scheduled for any hearing.
The NFL and team owners are likely to move for a quick dismissal of the case based on one or more civil procedures, including statutes of limitations that impose deadlines on when such legal complaints can be pursued.
The Henricks lawsuit addresses that issue by arguing the clock does not start ticking until plaintiffs are made aware of potential breaches of contracts. The plaintiff’s attorneys argue they became aware of the fraud, among other things, after reading Steeg’s comments.
Taxpayers in St. Louis did not pay to litigate the claim that resulted in the $790 million settlement. Instead, it was prosecuted by a private-practice lawyer who took a percentage of the damages.
The San Diego claim was filed under the same model.
4:28 p.m. Jan. 25, 2022: This story was updated to reflect a reaction statement San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and City Attorney Mara Elliott.
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