Donald Sterling, trying to stop his wife’s sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, was told he can’t force her lawyers to testify about their communications with two doctors who found him mentally incapacitated.
It would be highly unfavorable to Shelly Sterling to have her lawyers questioned by her husband’s attorneys, California Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas said at a hearing yesterday. The ruling is the latest setback for Donald Sterling in his effort to hold onto the basketball team following the outcry over racist comments he made to a girlfriend that were publicized in April.
Sterling, 80, claims his wife’s lawyers were in league with the doctors who examined him in May and found him to be incompetent. His wife then had him removed from sharing control of the family trust that owns the National Basketball Association team. She’s seeking a ruling by Levanas that she followed the trust’s rules, so she can close the $2 billion sale to former Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer.
“I can’t do a job unless I get witnesses,” Gary Ruttenberg, Donald Sterling’s lawyer, told the judge, who refused to halt the trial for Ruttenberg to appeal yesterday’s ruling.
The judge also said he won’t throw out the testimony and the reports of the two doctors who Donald Sterling has accused of violating his privacy rights by discussing their medical findings with Shelly Sterling’s lawyers.
The trial resumes July 21 after a one-week break. Donald Sterling’s lawyers are set to call witnesses to support his claim that his wife had him fraudulently removed as a co-trustee. Shelly Sterling needs a court order that she has sole authority to sell the team as part of the sale agreement with Ballmer.
The deadline for the sale to close, originally scheduled for July 15, has been extended to Aug. 15.
Donald Sterling testified earlier in the trail that he will never approve of the sale of the team he has owned since 1981. The NBA in June dropped plans of a forced sale when his wife agreed to sell the team to Ballmer.
The NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life after after TMZ.com reported that he told a girlfriend in a secretly recorded conversation that he didn’t want her to bring black people to Clippers games or post photos online of herself with former NBA All-Star Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
His wife had him examined purportedly because of concerns about his health, Sterling said, only to use the results to remove him as a family trustee. The findings of the doctors, who concluded Sterling is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, can’t be used to remove him because they were obtained by fraud, Sterling’s lawyers argue.
Donald Sterling’s move to force Pierce O’Donnell, Shelly Sterling’s lawyer, to testify was described by her legal team this week as “a last ditch, desperate effort to create pressure, harass Shelly’s lawyers” and prevent the Clippers sale from closing by an Aug. 15 deadline.
O’Donnell said last month that he felt threatened by a June 9 phone call he got from Sterling. Sterling yelled and referred to him using an expletive before warning, “I am going to take you out, O’Donnell,” according to a June 19 filing.
Levanas is deciding in the nonjury trial whether Shelly Sterling followed the provisions of the trust and has authority to sell the Clippers against the wishes of her husband of 58 years. They are “kind of” separated, she testified in the trial.
She removed her husband from control of their assets on May 29, the day she agreed to sell the team to Ballmer.
Ballmer’s lawyer, Adam Streisand, asked the judge to issue his decision as quickly as possible after the trial ends to allow the sale to close on time.
There’s a “good chance” Shelly Sterling will be allowed to conclude the sale by the Sept. 15 deadline the NBA has set, said Allan Cutrow, a trust and estates attorney at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP in Los Angeles.
Sterling’s trial testimony contained a lot of hyperbole, including his claim the Clippers could be worth as much as $5 billion, and at times he sounded irrational, which may make the judge more inclined to let Shelly Sterling complete the sale, Cutrow said.
“He made a deal with his wife and he has to live with this deal,” Cutrow said in a phone interview.
The NBA has said it may proceed with a forced sale of the Clippers if the sale to Ballmer isn’t completed by Sept. 15. The league in May appointed Dick Parsons, the former Citigroup Inc. (C) chairman and Time Warner Inc. (TWX) chief executive, to serve as interim CEO of the team.
Sterling filed a $1 billion antitrust lawsuit against the NBA in federal court in Los Angeles the day after Ballmer agreed to buy the team. He claims the league violated his rights under California law by moving to oust him based on secretly recorded conversations.
Prior to the NBA seizing the team, owners must meet and vote to allow Commissioner Adam Silver to terminate the Sterling ownership, according to Paul Haagen, a professor of sports and contract law at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina.
They will be treading into unknown areas, as there is no similar precedent “even remotely comparable to these in any American sports league,” Haagen said in an e-mail.
“There is the complicating factor that California law appears to bar the use of the recordings in any California proceeding,” Haagen said. “I believe that does not bar the league from taking note of the public effect of private conversations that have become public.”
The case is In the Matter of the Sterling Family Trust, BP152858, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).
To contact the reporters on this story: Edvard Pettersson in Federal court in Los Angeles at