Chargers Legal Feud May Invoke Thorny NFL Family Trust Issues

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Although the Los Angeles Chargers aren’t mentioned by name in a 47-page petition filed by Dea Spanos Berberian in a California court last Wednesday, the team’s ownership lies at the heart of the petition. It is the latest development in a multiyear legal battle over control of a family trust that owns 36% of the Chargers, a franchise worth $3 billion, per Sportico’s NFL team valuations.

In the petition, Berberian accuses her brother and fellow co-trustee, Chargers chairman Dean Spanos, of breaching his fiduciary duty to the trust. Berberian also accuses Dean and their brother, Chargers vice chairman Michael Spanos, of orchestrating a “campaign to punish, belittle and humiliate” her. As the petition tells it, the brothers have conspired to marginalize Berberian because “she had the audacity to speak up against their mismanagement of the trust.” Among other requested remedies, Berberian demands the court remove Dean Spanos as co-trustee—a move that would make her sole trustee and potentially facilitate the sale of a sizable portion of the team.

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The petition, drafted by prominent Los Angeles attorney Adam Streisand and obtained by Sportico, levels serious accusations against both Spanos brothers, especially Dean Spanos.

Berberian contends that Dean Spanos has engaged in “self-dealing with trust assets” in order to “profit personally at the beneficiaries’ expenses.” This alleged self-dealing, the petition contends, includes borrowing and paying interest “to entities in which Dean has a personal ownership interest.” Berberian also insists that her brothers have used the trust to wrongfully guarantee and reallocate debt for illegitimate purposes, including the purchase of a plane that lacked a “legitimate business justification.”

Much of the petition decries methods of alleged retaliation against Berberian and her family for what is characterized as her efforts to ensure the trust operates lawfully. To that end, Berberian accuses her brothers and their colleagues of attempting to “excommunicate” her from the family, “sever her most cherished relationships within the [Greek Orthodox] church” and damage her “relationship with her Pastor and spiritual advisor, Father Alex Karloutsos.”

Berberian further contends her brothers “have repeatedly acted out of their deeply-held misogynistic attitudes and sense of entitlement as the men in the family to trample [their parents’] express intention that Dean and Dea—not Michael—serve together, jointly and equally as co-trustees.” She also claims the duo have behaved in ways designed “to rationalize their pitiable behavior which she believes is intended to teach her that a woman has no rights.”

Like her three siblings—Dean, Michael and their sister, Alexandra Spanos Ruhl—Berberian owns 15% of the team. Each also has stakes in the trust. Their father, the late billionaire Alex Spanos, had owned 96% of the team and set up a trust, which originally had three co-trustees (wife Faye Spanos, Berberian and Dean Spanos) until Faye Spanos’ death in 2018, after which Berberian and Dean Spanos became co-trustees. None of the four siblings, in other words, is “majority owner” of the Chargers, though as chairman, Dean Spanos attends NFL owner meetings and is regarded as principal/controlling owner.

Berberian describes the trust as financially bungled and legally vulnerable. The petition explains the trust’s assets “generate no income save for a few promissory notes” and, as of Dec. 31, 2021, had debts totaling over $358 million, with a total debt exposure that exceeds $438 million. Although the petition concedes that the trust might currently possess assets that exceed debts by approximately $32 million, the trust allegedly projects to become insolvent within a few years. Berberian insists she has adhered to the legal requirement under the probate code that, as a trustee, her duty “is solely to discharge debts, pay expenses, and make distributions to beneficiaries.” Meanwhile, she portrays Dean Spanos as mismanaging the trust, borrowing recklessly and concealing information from her.

To be clear, Berberian’s petition retells history and shapes purported facts from her vantage point. Attorneys for Dean Spanos will have an opportunity to respond to the petition, dispute the allegations and offer a different set of purported facts.

Last Friday, the families of the two Spanos brothers and Ruhl released a statement that flatly repudiates Berberian’s account.

“It is unfortunate,” the statement said, “that our sister Dea, who clearly has no interest in continuing to participate in the family’s businesses, has resorted to leveling false and provocative charges in an attempt to impose her will on the rest of the family. The three of us and our children, representing more than 75% of the family and its ownership of its businesses, stand united in support of our parents’ and grandparents’ wishes, including as to the continued ownership and operation of the Chargers.”

As the legal process plays out, the NFL will keep tabs. Berberian’s portrayal of Dean Spanos as mismanaging financial instruments and behaving in “misogynistic” ways are likely concerning to league officials (who also recognize these are allegations, not established facts).

The league is also aware that Streisand, Berberian’s counsel, is a heavy hitter in family ownership disputes involving pro teams. Streisand successfully represented Jeanie Buss in a quarrel with her brothers over ownership of the Los Angeles Lakers. He also successfully advocated for Steve Ballmer in the complicated legal saga involving Donald and Shelly Sterling and the eventual sale of the Los Angeles Clippers.

On the other hand, there’s no history of the NFL forcing principal owners to sell their teams—or even taking formal steps to make that happen. No owner has been voted out, which under the league’s constitution would require three-fourths of the 31 other ownership groups to assent. Despite serious misconduct allegations leveled Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, both remain in charge. The super majority necessary to vote out an owner, coupled with some owners likely having concerns about the precedent of voting out an owner over allegations of misconduct, make the ouster vehicle unlikely.

For now, expect the Chargers to remain under the Spanos’ ownership. But as revealed in a 2021 court filing by Berberian, Dean Spanos wrote a letter to his siblings in 2019 saying he intends to work with them on selling the team in 2024. The letter contained caveats and conditions and does not constitute a binding obligation to sell. But with the recent sale of the Denver Broncos for $4.6 billion, the siblings and their trust would be poised to do well in a sale.

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