National Basketball Association
Donald Sterling loses another legal challenge to sale of Clippers
National Basketball Association

Donald Sterling loses another legal challenge to sale of Clippers

Published Aug. 8, 2014 7:48 p.m. ET


Donald Sterling lost another legal challenge Friday to his estranged wife's effort to sell the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer.

Sterling had petitioned the California Court of Appeals to step in and void an earlier decision by a probate judge paving the way for the deal.

But the court of appeals denied his application for an emergency stay of the sale because the probate ruling was not yet final.


As with many developments in the intra-family fight over the NBA franchise, Friday's filing was steeped in confusion.

To begin with, according to court officials in Los Angeles, probate Judge Michael Levanas hasn't actually finalized his tentative decision that set the stage for the completion of the sale — and won't until Aug. 13, the deadline for filing objections to his ruling.

Shelly Sterling's contract with Ballmer calls for the sale to be completed by Aug. 15.

Donald Sterling's lawyers made it clear that they view that date as a proverbial line in the sand — afterward, the controversial billionaire will have little chance to stop the sale.

"Once that sale goes through, Donald will have lost a unique and irretrievable asset: A 'trophy asset' coveted by high net worth individuals around the world — one of thirty NBA franchises in the country, and one that under Donald's thirty-year ownership has recently become one of the most successful," his lawyers wrote in the filing.

After the appeals court refused to take up Donald Sterling's filing Friday, his legal team was making plans to re-file it once the probate judge's ruling is signed on Aug. 13.

The move is the latest twist in a saga that began in April when a recording surfaced of Donald Sterling talking to a mistress and telling her not to bring African-Americans to Clippers games and to stop posting photographs of herself with blacks on social media websites. He was angered because the woman had posted a photo of herself with NBA legend Magic Johnson.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, after a quick investigation, concluded that it was Sterling's voice on the recordings and banned him from the league for life and imposed a $2.5 million fine. He also began proceedings to strip Sterling of the team and sell it — something that would have required a vote of 3/4 of the league's owners.

That vote was cancelled after Shelly Sterling negotiated the sale.

Bobby Samini, one of Sterling's attorneys, issued a statement saying they wanted the appeals court to consider various conclusions made by Judge Levanas.

In his tentative ruling on July 28, Levanas ruled in Shelly Sterling's favor on three critical issues: 1) He concluded that she acted properly when she removed her husband from a decision-making position in the family trust that controlled the team after two physicians determined that he was suffering from dementia and could not manage his own affairs. 2) He had jurisdiction to consider the case. 3) He should order the sale even while an appeal was being pursued, because failing to do so might cause harm to the value of the team.

"Donald's petition for writ of mandate is another desperate act by a desperate man," Pierce O'Donnell, an attorney for Shelly Sterling, said. "The decision by Judge Michael Levanas — after three weeks of trial — is a correct decision on the law and the undisputed evidence. Donald will do anything to kill the record-shattering $2 billion sale of the Clippers. His petition is frivolous."

Adam Streisand, an attorney representing Ballmer, said Friday he wasn't concerned about Donald Sterling's latest effort to derail the sale.

"We won this trial because Donald Sterling is on an egotistical crusade to destroy the Clippers if he can't keep the team, and he can't," Streisand said. "We will win the appeal for the very same reason."

Donald Sterling bought the NBA team in 1981 for $12.5 million and quickly moved it from San Diego to Los Angeles. After decades of struggles — the Clippers made the playoffs only four times in the first 30 years Sterling owned them — the team has surged in recent seasons with stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

All the while, Donald Sterling was a controversial figure in Los Angeles, and was sued twice for housing discrimination.

But it wasn't until the disclosure of his statements to V. Stiviano that galvanized public opinion against him.

During the trial conducted by Judge Levanas, Shelly Sterling testified that she began the effort to sell the team with her husband's blessing. It was only after Ballmer's $2 billion offer — which dwarfed the highest previous price paid for an NBA franchise, $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks — that he objected, she said.

After Donald Sterling refused to sign off on the deal, she had him removed as a trustee of the Sterling Family Trust — which held the team's parent company — following examinations from two doctors that he was suffering from dementia, possibly as a result of Alzheimer's disease.

Shelly Sterling signed a binding sales agreement with Ballmer on May 29, and the vote of NBA owners to strip Donald Sterling of ownership was canceled.

Donald Sterling subsequently revoked the trust, which had the practical effect of dissolving it.

Donald Sterling's lawyers argued that Shelly Sterling got her husband to submit to the medical examinations as part of a "secret Plan B" to wrest control of the team from him if he refused to sell. They argued that she had, in the words of attorney Max Blecher, "unclean hands, filthy hands." They argued that there was no danger to the value of the team — that if this sale was scuttled, a subsequent auction would bring even more money.

But Judge Levanas sided with Shelly Sterling on every issue, even saying that one of the witnesses called by Donald Sterling was so devoid of credibility that he would not even consider his testimony.

Throughout the appeals court filing, Donald Sterling's lawyers refer to Levanas' order as a "final statement of decision," which they assert was issued on Thursday.

However, Liz Martinez, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles Probate Court, said the judge set aside his final decision until Aug. 13, the expiration of the 15-day period on which Donald Sterling could object to his tentative decision.

No matter how the eventual filing with the appeals court plays out, Donald Sterling — who vowed in his own court testimony to sue the NBA until the day he dies — has two other lawsuits pending.

One asserts that he is the sole shareholder in the corporation that holds the Los Angeles Clippers' stock. The other, filed in federal court, accused the NBA of violating anti-trust laws.

If one of his legal efforts derails the sale to Ballmer, Silver has vowed that the NBA will begin proceedings Sept. 15 to seize the team and put it up for sale.


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