A trial in probate court that may determine who wins the family fight over the proposed sale of the Los Angeles Clippers was delayed nearly six hours Monday in the wake of an attempt by Donald Sterling’s lawyers to move the case to federal court.
A federal judge ultimately sent the case back to a state probate court, and the trial was scheduled to begin mid-afternoon instead of early morning.
Sterling, the embattled owner whose grip on the team was threatened after the public release of a recording of him making racially charged remarks, is fighting to hang on to the team he and his estranged wife have owned since 1981. His wife, Shelly Sterling, took steps to remove him from a decision-making position in the family trust that controls the team and negotiated a $2 billion sale to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer.
A four-day trial this week is supposed to determine whether Shelly Sterling’s move, made after two doctors concluded Donald Sterling had dementia and could no longer manage his affairs, was legal – and whether a judge could approve the sale.
Donald Sterling’s lawyers filed a last-minute petition to move the case to federal court, asserting that the release of Donald Sterling’s medical records violated his privacy.
Shelly Sterling, the estranged wife of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, arrived at a Los Angeles courthouse with her attorney Pierce O’Donnell on Monday, but it turns out the start of their scheduled trial was delayed.
Attorneys for Donald Sterling, Shelly Sterling and Ballmer were told to be back in Los Angeles probate court at 2:30 p.m. Pacific – and to be ready to go if a federal judge sent the case back to state court. That was despite repeated appeals from Donald Sterling’s lawyers to cancel the trial while a decision in federal court was pending.
Judge Michael Levanas declined and said he would start the trial if a federal judge declined to take the case.
"If they remanded it today, we’re ready to proceed," Levanas said Monday morning. "We’re in the batter’s box."
The issues Levanas will now consider are focused on whether Shelly Sterling was proper in removing Donald Sterling from a decision-making position in the Sterling family trust. Shelly Sterling took that step after two doctors concluded that Donald Sterling had dementia – and at the same time negotiated the deal with Ballmer.
Donald Sterling, despite publicly backing a sale at one point, is trying to block the deal negotiated by his wife. It’s far from certain that judge Levanas will approve the sale of the team.
Here’s why: Even if he concludes Shelly Sterling was within her rights to remove Donald Sterling from decision-making authority over the trust, Donald Sterling’s lawyers plan to open a second front in their effort to scuttle the deal. On June 9, Donald Sterling signed a letter revoking the Sterling family trust, effectively dissolving it. So Levanas may bless the process Shelly Sterling used to take control of the trust, but Donald Sterling’s lawyers would then likely argue that the court has no role in determining the fate of the sale since the trust no longer exists.
All that despite the argument that the sale deal was signed May 29 and Donald Sterling didn’t file the revocation of the trust until June 9.
Shelly Sterling’s attorneys are just as determined to argue that the sale agreement is a contract and that it must be concluded because it was signed before the trust was dissolved.
Hanging over everything is a July 15 date to complete the sale outlined in the agreement Shelly Sterling and Ballmer both signed.
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.
Shelly Sterling was in court Monday, as were more than a dozen attorneys.
The Sterlings bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million. The team, which was not competitive for much of their ownership, has surged in recent years with stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Then came the 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 Donald 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 Donald 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 Donald Sterling out.
Donald Sterling, who at one point signed a letter that seemed to support a sale, is fighting to derail the deal that Shelly Sterling negotiated. She had Donald Sterling examined by two doctors in May, and both concluded that he was suffering from dementia based on a series of tests designed to determine whether he could recall basic facts, such as the date and the season, remember a specific series of words, and connect a series of letters and numbers in order.