Testimony ends in trial with future of Clippers at stake
JUL 23, 2014 9:23p ET
Testimony ended with a whimper Wednesday in the intra-family fight over the future of the Los Angeles Clippers -- no Donald Sterling, no Shelly Sterling, very few theatrics.
Closing arguments are scheduled Monday, and at some point after that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levenas is expected to issue a ruling that may determine whether Shelly Sterling can complete the $2 billion sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer -- or whether Donald Sterling can effectively kill the deal.
Although lawyers for Donald Sterling indicated until the last minute they would call Shelly Sterling back to the stand Wednesday, in the end they did not.
Instead, they relied on testimony from a highly respected neurologist in an effort to call into question the process Shelly Sterling followed when she had her estranged husband examined by two doctors, both of whom concluded he was suffering from dementia and could no longer manage his own affairs. Following those conclusions, Shelly Sterling removed her husband of 58 years from decision-making authority in the family trust that held the Clippers and signed the sale agreement with Ballmer.
Dr. Jeffrey Cummings -- one of only two witnesses called by Donald Sterling's lawyers -- was critical of the fact that both doctors examined the embattled businessman in the presence of Shelly Sterling. Although the two have lived apart for some time, they enjoy what has been described as an amicable business relationship.
"The examination was conducted in the presence of Mrs. Sterling, and I understand that there's stress between Mrs. Sterling and Mr. Sterling," Cummings testified. "And the optimal mental status examination is conducted when the patient is not distracted and is able to concentrate fully on the task at hand."
But Pierce O'Donnell, one of Shelly Sterling's lawyers, attacked a central theme of Donald Sterling's case -- that his wife tricked him into the examinations and that neither doctor told him that he could be removed from the Sterling Family Trust if he performed poorly on a series of exercises designed to demonstrate his mental capacity.
Cummings, under cross-examination, agreed that telling a patient the possible legal ramifications of a poor performance could cause stress and affect the results of the test.
"Yes," Cummings said. "That's not a relationship I would establish."
Outside the courthouse after testimony ended, attorneys for Shelly Sterling and Ballmer were almost giddy.
"Their doctor, Dr. Cummings, was one of our best witnesses," said Adam Streisand, who represents Ballmer. "And their case that they've been telling you about for weeks, that the fraud was that the doctors didn't tell Mr. Sterling he might be removed as a trustee, is now absolutely gone."
Donald Sterling's lawyers, however, weren't ready to concede this case -- and asserted that a new suit they'd filed the previous day must go to trial before any sale of the team can be completed. That new suit asserts that Donald Sterling is the only shareholder in the company that owns the Clippers and, as such, is the only one who can sell the NBA franchise.
"Until you get to the conclusion in that action, I don't think you get anywhere close to a sale," Bobby Samini, one of Donald Sterling's lawyers, said. "So this is going to go on -- and to pre-emptively answer the question, yes, he's going to continue to fight, and no, he doesn't want to sell the team. And third, $2 billion is not enough money to sell your principals, ok?
"So that's what it comes down to."
Shelly Sterling's lawyers, however, had a very different take on that suit.
"It's a retread and a rehash of the very issues in this case," O'Donnell said. "He's complaining about his examinations and his removal. We'll deal with that case appropriately but we don't think that case has any impact on what we're doing here. This is the Donald Sterling stall."
Donald Sterling bought the team in 1981 for $12.5 million, and after many years in which the team was not competitive it surged in recent seasons with stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
But after his comments to a girlfriend became public in April -- he told her to stop bringing African Americans to Clippers games and stop posting photos of herself with blacks on social media websites -- NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned him from the league for life and initiated proceedings to strip him of ownership of the team.
Shelly Sterling, with her estranged husband's blessing, began the process of selling the team. After he refused to sign off on the deal with Ballmer, she had him removed as a trustee. Donald Sterling subsequently took steps to dissolve the Sterling Family Trust.
Shelly Sterling then sought a judge's blessing to proceed with the sale, sparking the trial that has been held off-and-on in probate court in downtown Los Angeles since July 7.
Closing arguments are scheduled Monday.
Judge Levanas has indicated he will consider three questions:
-- Whether the probate court is the appropriate place to determine the actions that should be taken to wind down the trust.
-- Whether Donald Sterling's removal as a trustee was proper.
-- Whether the court should issue an order allowing the sale to proceed even though Donald Sterling would likely pursue an appeal.
Shelly Sterling must prevail on all three questions for the judge to sign off on the sale. If Donald Sterling prevails on any one of them, he will effectively block the sale.
It's not clear how soon Judge Levanas will rule.
And it's not clear what steps Donald Sterling will take next if he loses this round. His attorneys have hinted that they may seek an injunction as part of the new lawsuit to stop the sale, and Sterling has a $1 billion suit pending in federal court accusing the NBA of anti-trust and other violations.