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Denver judge rules Broncos' former owner's heirs have no say

The judge's decision clears the way for the team to be sold.

DENVER — A Denver judge ruled Tuesday afternoon that the heirs of former Denver Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser have no unique right to buy back any portion of the franchise, clearing the way for the possible sale of the team.

The decision came after a trial last fall in which the trust now running the team challenged the assertion by Kaiser’s heirs that his original agreement to sell the Broncos to Pat Bowlen in 1984 was still valid – and that it gave them right of first refusal on any potential sale.

That assertion came despite the fact that Kaiser died in 2012 and Bowlen died in 2019 after a protracted battle with Alzheimer's disease.

In court documents obtained by 9Wants to Know, Denver District Judge Shelley I. Gilman sided with the trust overseeing the team on every point:

  • The right of first refusal in the March 16, 1984, sales agreement between Kaiser and Bowlen “has terminated in its entirety” and “is no longer valid or enforceable in any respect.”
  • None of Kaiser’s heirs “have any rights under the right of first refusal” – meaning they are not entitled to any notice of the intended sale of the franchise.
  • The Broncos have no obligations “to provide notice of any intended sale.”

In addition to the judge's ruling, there was another indicator Tuesday the team will be sold: 9NEWS confirmed that Pat Bowlen's daughter Brittany Bowlen is not on the committee searching for a new head coach. The trust overseeing the team had made it clear publicly that it favored Brittany if one of Bowlen's children was ultimately going to be named controlling owner. 

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Tuesday's ruling was no surprise to 9NEWS legal analyst Whitney Traylor. 

"Legally this is the correct decision," he said. "Certainly the fact that both of these gentlemen who were participating in the original agreement, they have both now passed on, there is no basis for any interference from Kaiser or the heirs."

Joe Ellis, one of the trustees and the team's president and chief executive officer, was expected to address the future ownership plans after a new head coach is hired – a process that was expected to take a couple of weeks.

The team on Sunday fired coach Vic Fangio after three consecutive losing seasons.

> Video below: Sports Director Rod Mackey and WATCH Anchor Chris Bianchi discuss coaching, ownership and what's next for the Denver Broncos now that their 2021 season is over.

“We’re glad to put this issue behind us and move closer to transitioning ownership of the Denver Broncos," Ellis said in a statement after the ruling. "While our focus at this time is on our head coaching search, we plan to make an announcement regarding ownership shortly after that hire is completed.”

Dan Reilly, an attorney representing the team, said in a statement, “We are very pleased with the court’s order today terminating any right of first refusal. The trustees will continue moving forward with the ownership transition process.”

The lawsuit filed by the Broncos named Kaiser's heirs and ROFR Holdings Ltd., a company set up to control the right of first refusal. Neither a representative ROFR Holdings nor an attorney for the Kaiser heirs could be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

It is possible Kaiser's family could appeal the judge's ruling.

That ruling is the latest turn in the saga over the future ownership of a franchise valued at $3.75 billion. Its future has been in question since 2014, when Bowlen stepped away from an active role in the team as he battled Alzheimer’s.

Before doing so, he established a three-person trust to oversee the team and determine whether one of his seven children from two marriages was qualified and capable of taking over as the controlling owner. The trust also was given the power to sell the team.

RELATED: Bowlen children open up about having two parents with Alzheimer's

In the wake of Bowlen's death, there was an intra-family fight over who would be chosen to run the team.

One of his daughters from his first marriage, Beth Bowlen Wallace, stated publicly in 2018 that she was qualified and prepared to take over as the team's controlling owner. At the time, the trustees issued a public statement refuting that assertion and made it clear they were looking toward one of Bowlen's daughters from his second marriage, Brittany Bowlen.

RELATED: Legendary Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen dies at 75

Beth Bowlen Wallace and another sister, Amie Bowlen Klemmer, filed suit, alleging their father was not mentally fit when the trust was set up – and that he was subject to undue influence by the trustees. That suit was ready for trial when it was dismissed in July.

At the time, Ellis said the ownership situation would be settled before the start of the 2022 season – and now the judge’s ruling clears the way for that to happen.

In a July 27 press conference, Ellis said that for Brittany Bowlen to take over the team it would require agreement from her six siblings –  each of them controls about 11 percent of the team. 

RELATED: Ellis: Broncos to begin transition to new owner after this season

“If Brittany is going to move forward, there is going to have to be an agreement among all the family members – in some form – that she can do that,” Ellis said at the time. "There still needs to be, in some form, consent from every family member for that to happen."

But Ellis also made it clear that the sale of the Broncos – once unthinkable – was very much in play. For that to happen, the team had to prevail in its legal fight with Kaiser's heirs over the right of first refusal.

By any measure, Pat Bowlen’s 35 years of ownership were stunningly successful – the team won just shy of 60% of its games, claimed 13 division titles, and had as many Super Bowl appearances – seven – as losing seasons. All of it was capped off by Super Bowl wins after the 1997, ’98 and ’15 seasons.

Now the Broncos look toward the 2022 season knowing there'll be a new head coach, and a settled ownership situation.

Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.

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