The Vikings have smacked down Wells Fargo in a dispute over "photo-bombing" signs near the new U.S. Bank Stadium.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank told Wells Fargo on Thursday to remove illuminated, elevated signs from the rooftops of two 17-story office towers near the Vikings' new home in downtown Minneapolis. Frank also ordered Wells Fargo to pay the team's legal fees stemming from the dispute, saying that Wells Fargo breached a contract.
Frank found that Wells Fargo "likely believed" that its signs violated a two-year agreement with the team regarding what was permitted on the rooftops of the towers where 5,000 employees work daily. The judge agreed with the Vikings that the signage contract "unambiguously" prohibits illuminated or mounted rooftop signs, but allows signs painted flush on each rooftop no larger than 56-by-56 feet.
Under the legislation passed to build the stadium, the Vikings had control of an area surrounding the $1.1 billion building. Before Ryan Companies built the development with the Wells Fargo towers, the team had negotiated a deal that allowed only flat signs on the roof.
In August 2014, just months after the agreement was signed, Wells Fargo notified the Vikings of plans for the mounted, lighted signs. The Vikings objected. But Wells Fargo went ahead anyway, spending $490,000 to construct signs that are 38 inches high and illuminated. As construction progressed on the signs, the Vikings filed a lawsuit in December 2015.
Wells Fargo argued the contract was "silent" on whether the rooftop signs could be raised and illuminated. Frank disagreed, saying that the contract specifically allowed illuminated signs on other parts of the building.
"The fact that the signage agreement expressly provides for illumination of these signs, but not of the rooftop signs, supports the proposition that the parties did not intend to permit illumination of the rooftop signs," Frank wrote.
The image argument
While the dispute centered on rooftop signs, the bigger concerns are money and image. U.S. Bank Stadium paid the Vikings undisclosed millions for the naming rights to the building. The U.S. Bank logo is visible from the sky above the massive building.
In their lawsuit, the Vikings said Wells Fargo was trying to insert itself into the image of the new building with more prominent signs, aiming to photo-bomb images of the stadium that would be broadcast throughout the world during major events like the 2018 Super Bowl.
In a deposition related to the case, Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president, said the elevated Wells Fargo signage "detracts from the image of … the broader holistic stadium and district."
Frank heard oral arguments in the dispute for nearly three hours earlier this month. The case had been scheduled for trial next month.
Wells Fargo didn't immediately respond to requests for comment so it wasn't clear what will happen next.
Judge chides both sides
In the judge's summary in the order, Frank said he "continues to have difficulty understanding the parties' inability to resolve this matter" outside of court. He pointed out that both the Vikings and Wells Fargo claim "public interest" because they are partners of the state and city in redeveloping the eastern end of downtown.
"In light of these partnerships, each party proclaims its contributions and commitment to the community, yet neither seems to comprehend the possibility that spending vast time and resources on this litigation might disserve the public interest," he wrote.
Frank's ruling allows Wells Fargo to paint signs on the rooftops, but permanently bars raised or lighted signs.
Late Thursday, the Vikings released a short statement saying the ruling "requires Wells Fargo to honor its written agreement with the Minnesota Vikings by removing all raised rooftop signage within 30 days."