For six hours Monday, the beginning of a trial that could determine the fate of a $2 billion offer for the Los Angeles Clippers hung in limbo while attorneys for embattled team owner Donald Sterling sought to move the case to federal court — then it began, and in rather dramatic fashion.
After Sterling’s effort to shift the case to a different court was turned aside, Los Angeles probate judge Michael Levanas finally turned to attorneys for the owners’ estranged wife, who negotiated the proposed sale, and told them to begin their case.
Attorney Pierce O’Donnell stood in the packed, muggy, windowless courtroom. It was just after 3 p.m. local time.
"We call Donald Sterling," he said, turning and scanning the gallery packed with reporters, attorneys and court-watchers who came to see the spectacle as Donald Sterling fights to hang onto the team the couple has owned since 1981, and Shelly Sterling tries to complete the sale to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer.
But Donald Sterling — the man whose racially charged comments sparked controversy that threw his ownership into peril — was not there. One of his attorneys said later that he didn’t expect the question of whether the federal court would take the case to be resolved so quickly, and as a result, Sterling had been told not to come to court Monday.
While Shelly Sterling attorney Pierce O’ Donnell were in court Monday, Donald Sterling is due to testify on Tuesday.
There was talk of how to proceed — and even a question about whether an arrest warrant should be issued for the 80-year-old businessman who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
In the end, the trial got underway, with attorneys for the combatants drawing contrasting images of their opponents’ motivations.
At issue is whether Shelly Sterling complied with the requirements of the family trust that controls the team when she removed her husband from a decision-making position and negotiated the sale of the team — and whether the judge has the legal authority to bless the deal. That second question is far from certain. On June 9, Donald Sterling signed documents revoking the trust, which effectively dissolved it, and his attorneys have said that court no longer has any jurisdiction over the team.
Hanging over the trial — which is being heard by a judge but not a jury — is a July 15 deadline for the sale of the team to Ballmer to be consummated.
Shelly Sterling’s lawyers contend that she was genuinely worried about her estranged husband’s mental state after the controversy surrounding his remarks to an alleged mistress that she should stop bringing African Americans to Clippers games, and after a follow-up television interview in which he appeared disheveled and confused. At that point, Shelly suggested that Donald see a doctor, and he underwent brain scans and was evaluated by two physicians, both of whom concluded that he had dementia.
At that point, Shelly invoked a provision in the rules governing the Sterling Family Trust that allowed her to remove Donald as a trustee because two doctors had concluded that he was mentally incapacitated. Her attorneys have asserted that all of her actions, including sharing his medical records with doctors, were allowed under the provisions of the trust.
Donald Sterling’s lawyers contend that his estranged wife tricked him into seeing the doctors, telling him that she was concerned about his health when in fact she was carrying out a "secret Plan B" to wrest away control of the team so she could sell it. They have asserted that when the two doctors released medical records to Shelly Sterling, they violated both state and federal privacy laws.
In his opening statement, O’Donnell said that Shelly Sterling satisfied all the requirements of the trust — that she had her husband examined by two doctors, that they are licensed, that they regularly evaluate the mental capacity of others, that they are not related to him by blood or marriage, and that they certified in writing that he was unable to manage his own affairs.
"We have satisfied all five of those requirements," O’Donnell said.
Gary Ruttenberg, one of Donald Sterling’s lawyers, painted a much more sinister picture.
"This case reads like a Hollywood soap opera," he said. "I call it the ‘Tale of the Two Sterlings.’ There was a Plan A, and a secret Plan B."
Plan A was to get Donald Sterling to agree to the sale. After he refused, Ruttenberg said Shelly Sterling and her lawyers went behind his back to remove him from decision-making power in the trust if he did not.
The Sterlings bought the Clippers 33 years ago for $12.5 million. The team, which was not competitive for much of the Sterlings’ ownership, has surged in recent years with stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, making the playoffs the past three seasons after accomplishing that feat only four times in the previous 30 years.
Then came the April disclosure of the tape of Sterling talking to a female friend, V. Stiviano, and expressing dismay that she had posted a photo on a social media website that showed her with NBA legend Magic Johnson.
In one exchange on the recording, which was made last September, Sterling told Stiviano to say away from Clippers games — "don’t bring black people, and don’t come."
Those remarks, first reported by the website TMZ, ignited a firestorm that led NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban Sterling from the league for life, fine him $2.5 million and launch the process of wresting control of the team from him and forcing its sale.
The team’s coach, Doc Rivers, publicly questioned whether he would stay on the job if Sterling continued to own the Clippers. In the meantime, Shelly Sterling stepped in and negotiated the sale to Ballmer, averting — for now, at least — an effort by Silver to have the other NBA owners force out Donald Sterling.
Ballmer’s purchase agreement requires either that Donald Sterling consent to the sale or that Shelly Sterling obtain "a final and non-appealable order" from a judge giving her the sole authority to close the deal.
Monday’s only witness was one of the doctors who concluded that Donald Sterling is suffering from dementia.
Dr. Meril Platzer, a highly respected neurologist, talked about her examination of Sterling — testimony that came over the repeated objections of Sterling’s legal team. Platzer described going to Sterling’s home and spending roughly two hours with him and his wife after two different scans of his brain. She said she has made other house calls for high-profile and disabled patients. And she described what happened at the end of the exam.
"I told both him and Mrs. Sterling that … he has Alzheimer’s," Platzer said.
"What did he say?" O’Donnell asked.
"I’m hungry, I want to eat," Platzer replied.
Court adjourned after O’Donnell wrapped up his questions. That means Tuesday is likely to begin with a fierce line of questioning for Platzer from Donald Sterling’s attorneys — including the assertion that her medical opinion was compromised by the fact she went out for dinner and a drink with Shelly Sterling after the examination and was later joined by Donald and others at a Beverly Hills restaurant.
Also on tap Tuesday is an expected appearance by Donald Sterling, who is likely to testify.
After the trial ended for the day late Monday afternoon, attorneys on both sides dug in for battle.
Shelly Sterling’s lawyers professed their eagerness to question Donald Sterling under oath.
"We are very anxious to get Mr. Sterling here to face the music," said Bertram Fields, one of Shelly Sterling’s attorneys. "I mean, he’s the guy that keeps delaying, keeps doing anything he can to keep his family from getting the $2 billion they’re entitled to.
"Why? Just because of his ego."
Bobby Samini, one of Donald Sterling’s lawyers, portrayed him as a man who has been wronged.
"What always rings out for me is that Donald is being treated differently," Samini said. "He’s being treated differently than the people who run the NBA. He’s being treated differently than the other NBA owners.
"This is not the way we do things in our country."