For Redskins Fans, Hard Luck Runs Into Team's Hard Line
By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009
It would be hard to find a more loyal fan of the Washington Redskins than real estate agent Pat Hill. She's had season tickets since the early 1960s, when her daughter danced in the halftime shows at the old D.C. Stadium, before it was renamed in memory of Robert F. Kennedy.
In the hallway of her modest home south of Alexandria, the 72-year-old grandmother points out the burgundy-and-gold Redskins hook rug she made. In her bedroom, she shows off the pennants from two Redskins Super Bowl games she attended, and she opens a music box on her dresser that plays "Hail to the Redskins."
Now, Hill says, her beloved Redskins are forcing her into bankruptcy.
Last year, Hill's real estate sales were hit hard by the housing market crash, and she told the team that she could no longer afford her $5,300-a-year contract for two loge seats behind the end zone. Hill said she asked the Redskins to waive her contract for a year or two.
The sales office declined.
On Oct. 8, the Redskins sued Hill in Prince George's County Circuit Court for backing out of a 10-year ticket-renewal agreement after the first year. The team sought payment for every season through 2017, plus interest, attorneys' fees and court costs.
Hill couldn't afford a lawyer. She did not fight the lawsuit or even respond to it because, she said, she believes that the Bible says that it is morally wrong not to pay your debts. The team won a default judgment of $66,364.
"It really breaks my heart," Hill said, her voice cracking as the tears well and spill. "I don't even believe in bankruptcy.
"We are supposed to pay our bills. I ain't trying to get out of anything."
Hill is one of 125 season ticket holders who asked to be released from multiyear contracts and were sued by the Redskins in the past five years. The Washington Post interviewed about two dozen of them. Most said that they were victims of the economic downturn, having lost a job or experiencing some other financial hardship.
Redskins General Counsel David Donovan said the lawsuits are a last resort that involve a small percentage of the team's 20,000 annual premium seat contracts. He added that the team has accommodated people in hard-luck circumstances hundreds of times. He said he was unaware of Pat Hill's case.
"The Washington Redskins routinely works out payment plans and alternate arrangements with hundreds of ticket holders every year," Donovan said. "For every one we sue, I would guess we work out a deal with half a dozen."
Donovan said the team has agreed to reduce the number of seats in a contract, waived contracts for a year, shortened contracts and terminated contracts early. Most of the lawsuits are filed after people "simply refuse to negotiate with us. They've been made an offer, but they just said no," he said.
"A lot of it is a judgment call you make when meeting them, or on the phone, about the legitimacy of the situation," he said. "It does happen that we get lied to by people who identify reasons for wanting to get out of a contract. They don't always tell us the truth."
He added: "I can't say everyone gets dealt with exactly the same. I can't guarantee everyone gets dealt with the appropriate level of compassion, but that is our goal."
Many of the sued fans who were interviewed by The Post said that when they requested relief, they were offered settlements that required them to make hefty payments over time.
Among those sued are mortgage brokers, real estate developers, government workers, plumbers, construction contractors, lobbyists, lawyers and several car salesmen.
Donovan said other teams sue their fans. "I don't know of any pro football team that doesn't," he said.
But spokesmen for the following National Football League teams said they do not sue their fans over season ticket contracts: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Jets, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans.
The New England Patriots have sued multiyear premium ticket holders. A Chicago Bears spokesman said, "In rare instances, we have sued."
Officials with the Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts declined to comment on the query. Other teams did not respond.
Officials of most Washington area sports franchises that have season ticket accounts said they generally avoid such lawsuits. Nate Ewell, spokesman for the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals, said he could not think of a reason to sue a ticket holder. When a season ticket holder fails to make payments, the team cancels the tickets and resells them.
"Lawsuits are generally a last resort sort of thing," said Peter Biché, president of business operations for Washington Sports and Entertainment, which runs Verizon Center, where the Capitals and the National Basketball Association's Wizards play. "We're not in the lawsuit business. That's not how we run our business."
Donovan said: "I wish we never had to sue anybody. Why would you ever want to do that? But this is a business. And we rely on these contracts for our planning, and we do what we can when somebody gets into a situation where they can't afford to pay."
The Post reviewed lawsuits in which the Daniel M. Snyder-controlled entity WFI Stadium Inc. sued 125 Redskin ticket holders for a total of $3.6 million. The team won judgments totaling $2 million from 34 season ticket holders, most of whom did not hire an attorney and defaulted by not making an appearance in court.
The Post has documented 16 tickets for individual games that were taken from sued fans and resold by the Redskins. The tickets, forfeited by five fans, were bought by an online broker, ASC Ticket Co. of Gaithersburg, according to a printout from the Redskins ticket system. Some of those sued complained that the Redskins had "double-dipped" -- reselling the tickets while obtaining judgments against them for defaulting on the contracts.
Donovan rejected the idea that the Redskins collected twice on the seats, saying that collecting on the judgments has been difficult. "Getting a judgment is not getting paid," he said.
When Companies Default
About a dozen companies bailed out on their luxury skybox leases in the past year, and the cases stand out from the premium ticket holder lawsuits in both size and nature.
The companies include a lobbying firm that went out of business, a telecommunications firm and a Shenandoah coffee roaster owned by a man indicted on charges that he ran a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. The Redskins have won $8 million in judgments in eight cases.
Only one defendant is mounting a significant defense: Atlantic Transportation Equipment Ltd., a Maryland bus-maintenance company that rented a 30-seat skybox suite for $149,000 annually to entertain clients and employees. The six-year contract was due to expire next year, and the Redskins sued for the final two seasons, or $269,000 after deducting the deposit.
The case is set for trial next month. Attorney Alan Silverberg argued in pretrial discussions that the team found a tenant for the suite last year and this year and should reduce the damages sought by the amount collected from the new tenant.
"It is basic, fundamental law that [a landlord] can't remain idle when premises are abandoned," Silverberg said. "They can't sit back and say, 'You breached the lease, and you owe for the duration.' "
The team agreed to reduce the damages sought to $74,371.
However, in the cases against the five fans whose tickets were resold to ASC, the Redskins have not reduced the amount they are seeking in court to reflect the proceeds from resold tickets. Donovan said the contract stipulates that the team can collect for the full term if a ticket holder defaults. He also said the team cannot afford to leave seats empty while it pursues judgments that are difficult to collect.
Rodney Hubbard, 37, who defaulted on a 10-year contract after a year, said he thinks that it is unfair "to charge me for the rest of the nine years if I don't go."
For years, Hubbard bought tickets to individual games from his employer, a car dealership. But in 2007, he realized a lifelong dream of getting season tickets. He signed up to buy four club seats on the 30-yard line for $15,000 a year.
A year later, the economy tanked, and so did car sales. Hubbard lost his job and tried opening a used-car lot. But he couldn't make the required full ticket payment, due in April, for the fall season.
Redskins sales agents said he could pay in installments. He made one partial payment of $1,000 over the summer. Later, he said, he scraped together $3,500 in cash and drove to the FedEx ticket office. He was told that he was too late. The seats had been sold to someone else. And he was in default, his debt referred for legal action.
Donovan said he did not believe that the team refused to take Hubbard's money. "I think that's ludicrous," he said. "If he had shown up with his money, we would have gotten him seats."
On Oct. 8, Hubbard was sued in Prince George's County court. His contract specified that the team could collect for the remaining years if he defaulted. The team only sued, however, for the price of two club seats, about $7,100 a year.
For Hubbard, that meant $71,000. The Redskins won a judgment in the full amount when he didn't show up for court.
The judgment has harmed Hubbard's credit rating, and even if he pays up, he won't get the tickets back. "Where are the tickets when I pay it off?" Hubbard said. "That's not right. If that's the case, then nobody should sit in the seats."
Records obtained by The Post show that one set of his tickets, for a St. Louis Rams game, were sold to ASC.
Fans Who Feel Misled
Alonzo Webb, 60, an investigator with the Department of Homeland Security, said he got his tickets for his son when times were good. He bought a six-year contract for two club seats at $5,700 a year. He worried that he wouldn't always be able to afford them, so he asked the sales agent whether he would be able to get out of the contract in bad times.
"I was told by this man, 'If you have issues, if you can't honor your contract, notify us in writing, and we'll see what we can work out with you,' " Webb said.
But when he had problems, the Redskins sued. He didn't contest the lawsuit and was hit with a judgment of $15,721. He paid it with a credit card loan.
Donovan said he would be willing to give Webb tickets for the 2009 season at no additional cost to Webb. "If he's paid his judgment, I would be happy to get him tickets," Donovan said. "I have no desire to take anyone's money and not give him something for it."
Webb responded, "I wouldn't want the damn tickets. It's just the principle of the thing."
Dennis M. Butts, 62, worked as a contractor for the team at Redskins Park, the team headquarters. In 2006, he said he thought he had negotiated a year-to-year contract for four Touchdown Club seats at $8,000 each, for a total of $32,000 a year. After the first year, he said the team informed him that he had signed a six-year contract through 2012. He said the team told him that if he didn't buy the tickets again in 2007, he would owe for the entire contract.
The Redskins, Butts said, offered him a settlement under which he would pay $32,000 and the team would take back the tickets. He agreed but ended up not being able to make the payments, he said.
The Redskins went back to court and won a judgment for the full six years, plus interest and legal fees: $209,351. Butts said he cannot afford to pay it.
Donovan said there is no evidence to support Butts's story. "He signed up for a one-year contract, and three months later he signed up for a six-year contract. I don't know how it could be any clearer."
James Nesbitt, 62, also said he ended up with a six-year contract he didn't want. An accountant who audits company financial statements, Nesbitt accuses the Redskins of changing his contract after he signed it.
Nesbitt said that for years, he had general admission seats in the upper deck while waiting to move to the lower bowl, which is closer to the action. In 2006, he said, the team offered him a deal: Sign up for two years of club seats, and we will move you to the lower bowl afterward.
After the first year, he said he received a contract that he was told was a "renewal." Because the contract came in December 2007, he said, he signed it, thinking that it was for the next season and overlooked that it said 2009.
The term sheet contained three boxes: Six years, eight years and 10 years. He said he did not check any of the boxes.
Nesbitt told The Post that his secretary saved a copy of his original contract, which had been faxed to the Redskins. It is signed, and no box is checked.
This year, he said, he asked for his promised lower bowl seats and was told there was a problem: He had a six-year contract for club seats. He said the team threatened to sue him.
Nesbitt, a member of the board of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts and other charities, said he considered fighting in court but decided to tap a connection with the Redskins, a colleague he knew who worked with Donovan, the team lawyer.
The Redskins ultimately offered a compromise: If Nesbitt bought one more year of club seats, he could have lower bowl seats in 2010 if they became available. Nesbitt agreed. He avoided a lawsuit but is unhappy about the whole situation.
"I feel I was cheated and that the Redskins were highly disingenuous," Nesbitt said.
Donovan said he was "floored" to learn that Nesbitt was unhappy, particularly after Nesbitt told Donovan in an e-mail that he was making "good progress thanks to you" and then e-mailed team Vice President Jason Friedman "unconditionally accepting" the offer.
William H. Hightower, 36, eagerly signed a six-year contract for two seats at $7,800 a year in 2005. By last year, after leaving the family construction business, he couldn't afford the tickets. He thought the Redskins would let him renegotiate.
"People can work out their mortgage, but these guys were like, 'No, we're taking you to court,' " Hightower said. "I don't think they gave me a fair shake, especially being what the economy was. If it was high times and everyone was making money, I would understand."
The Redskins worked out a settlement: Hightower agreed to pay $12,000, and the team agreed to forgo the $18,000 balance. He's paying $800 a month for tickets to games he will never attend.
Before the season began last year, Reginald Woods, 50, a mortgage broker in Bowie, told the team that he could no longer afford his two club seats, which cost him more than $5,000 a year. He was in the third year of a six-year contract. He said he offered to pay for 2008 if the club would allow him to go to the games and let him out of the rest of the contract. The team sued for $25,000.
"I said, 'How are they going to charge me for tickets I never received?' " Woods said. "They were trying to charge me for 2009, 2010 and 2011, and I was like, 'How can they do that?' They never made any of that stuff clear to me."
After the suit was filed, Woods agreed to pay for the 2008 tickets, although he didn't attend a game. "All of that could have been worked out," Woods said. "Their approach was really hard-core."
Donovan said: "For a mortgage broker, I think that's somewhat ironic. I doubt the bank was just writing off mortgage loans that he placed."
In January 2008, a Montgomery County man wrote the Redskins to say that he was unable to pay for his season tickets. The man said he was unemployed, had been in jail, could not find a job, was on medical assistance and was relying on his 73-year-old mother for rent.
Friedman wrote a letter offering a payment plan "to keep your account in good standing." Friedman suggested that another option would be to transfer the contract to someone else.
In June, the Redskins turned the case over to outside counsel. David A. Slacter was retained to represent the man under the Montgomery County Bar Pro Bono Program.
Slacter mailed the team's attorneys copies of government records saying his client is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who "is not stable for work." Slacter wrote, "It is clear there is nothing to be gained by pursuing" his client.
Slacter requested that his client not be named because of his mental illness.
Two months later, the Redskins filed suit in Prince George's County.
Slacter ultimately persuaded a judge to move the case to Montgomery, where the man lived. The team did not follow up, and the case was dismissed.
"If people sign a contract and they don't abide by the terms, I have no problem," Slacter said. "But once they were informed that my client had severe mental health issues, good business sense -- if not common decency -- dictates that you don't pursue it."
Donovan said he couldn't recall the case.
"There is no motivation for us to pursue litigation against someone who is judgment- proof," he said. "That is a waste of our time and money."
In 2006, Jorge R. Vasquez Sr., 47, was in jail for embezzlement and wrote to both the Washington Nationals and the Redskins to say he could no longer keep his tickets. He had three loge seats at FedEx and a six-year contract that began in 2003.
The baseball team wrote back to offer him free tickets, according to a letter he sent to the court. The Redskins sued him $12,914.
The Nationals "were able to understand that my situation and status to continue to support their team as a fan had changed," Vasquez wrote to the court. "Instead of getting sued in courts, they extended their sympathy by issuing to me four courtesy tickets; now I have even lost my home and the richest franchise of the National Football League is pursuing 'their loss' through court, while completely forgetting about the fact that all I ever wanted to be was a Fan."
The lawsuit was dismissed because neither party appeared in court, records show.
Real estate developer Randy Clarno, 51, of Eagle, Idaho, wasn't so fortunate. Clarno used to fly to Washington to attend Redskins games. He has been a fan since he was 10 years old, when he decided to cheer against his dad's favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys. "That's my team," he told his father of the Redskins.
He said that a business downturn last year forced him to lay off 20 employees and that he could no longer afford his two club-seat tickets, which cost $8,900 a year. He said he tried to sell them, but "nobody wanted to buy them at the outrageous prices that they charge."
Now, Clarno's team has a judgment against him for $80,837.
"The attitude that they are willing to kick ya while you're down is just incredible to me," Clarno said. "I didn't treat any of my customers like this. When you treat customers right, they come back and they hang around you in the hard times. Especially guys like me."
Donovan said the team has the right to enforce contracts with people who have the ability to pay.
"This is a guy who didn't want to pay his bill," he said. "I don't have any reason to think he couldn't afford to pay his bill. He just declined to do so."
Donovan said that sometimes an agreement cannot be reached. "Everyone that you can identify who is unhappy about the negotiation, I could find you 12 where the fan was appreciative and grateful at the efforts we went to to work out the situation," he said.
The phone rings repeatedly in Pat Hill's home off Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. One morning recently, her answering machine picked up a robo call. A recorded voice said, "This is an attempt to collect a debt."
Hill said she never answers the phone. "They call all day like that," she said.
Her Redskins debt of $66,364 weighs on her, but it is one among many.
In the past, Hill has helped others in need. She said she lent $20,000 to an Iraq war veteran to keep his mortgage current so his family would not lose the house.
"She's like an angel," said Muhammed Khan, a former loan officer who used to work with Hill and attended Redskins games with her. "If she has a dollar in her pocket, she will help somebody else. She's given $60,000 or $70,000 to pay other people's mortgages. People would come to her."
In May 2007, Hill's real estate practice in Fairfax County was booming. She had 20 real estate contracts that promised her $200,000 in commissions. She said they all fell through.
Now, Hill is struggling on $3,200 a month from a government pension, plus $400 a month from Social Security. The monthly payment on her adjustable-rate mortgage is $5,019.
"I'm $100,000 behind," she said.
On Friday, she received a note from the mortgage company: She was rejected for a loan modification. She has worked out payment plans with the utilities, and she still makes her car payment.
Every Sunday in the newspaper, she looks for jobs. No luck.
She's trying to sell houses again. "I got a lot of buyers," she said. "I can't get them loans."
And she has started to sell off her Redskins memorabilia.
Hill used to have three Tiffany-style Redskins lamps. Now there's just one. Two were sold "not for very much," she said, to a pawnshop on Route 1 in Woodbridge. She also sold two Redskins jackets to the pawnshop. "I just needed the money so badly."
There was a miniature Redskins village, too, with a little Redskins filling station and a tiny Redskins bakery and a Redskins choo-choo train -- all purchased from a cable shopping channel for more than $1,000. She gave it to a friend to sell.
And she says she was humiliated when a process server arrived at her door notifying her that her favorite team was suing her.
Yet it hasn't dimmed her fidelity. She brightens at the memory of meeting Sonny Jurgensen in the locker room 47 years ago.
"I just love the Redskins."
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Meg Smith contributed to this report.