Dementia expert is final witness in Sterling trial

Dementia expert is final witness in Sterling trial
Donald Sterling contends that his wife used fraud and undue influence to get him to undergo examinations by two experts who declared him medically incapacitated. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles)

A dementia expert raised questions about whether two doctors properly conducted mental exams that found longtime Clippers owner Donald Sterling mentally incapacitated as testimony concluded Wednesday in the trial to determine whether Shelly Sterling acted properly when she sold the team in May without her husband's consent.

Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, a Las Vegas-based authority on geriatric psychiatry, told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas that he would not have allowed Shelly Sterling to sit in on Donald's mental competency exams and would have given the patient more information, but not too much, on possible outcomes if he failed.


But Cummings' finding that Donald Sterling suffered only mild cognitive impairment was not admitted into evidence, because of an agreement of both sides that the trial would not be a "battle of the experts" into Sterling's mental status.

Some of Cummings' testimony helped Shelly Sterling by rejecting the contention that Donald should have been told that failing the examinations could lead to his being removed as a trustee of the family trust that controlled the Clippers.

Informing Sterling of possible trust implications could have stressed him and caused him to perform poorly, Cummings said. "That is not a relationship I would establish," Cummings testified.

The psychiatrist also said that Shelly Sterling's presence during the exams was not standard procedure and may have added stress and compromised Donald's performance. Cummings also said, though, that he had no independent information about the couple's relationship and was not aware that Donald Sterling had invited his wife to sit with him as the doctors questioned him at his Beverly Hills home.

Cummings' statements seemed unlikely, alone, to persuade Levanas to discount the findings of two other experts — Dr. Meril Platzer and Dr. James Spar — who examined Sterling in May and reported that he was showing symptoms of being in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. The neurologist and geriatric psychiatrist both found Sterling unfit to continue as a trustee of the family trust.

Shelly Sterling used that medical finding to take control of the trust and the Clippers, signing a deal to sell the team on May 29 to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion. With Donald Sterling continuing to fight the deal, his wife needs court approval to complete the transaction.

The case is scheduled to wind up Monday with closing arguments. Levanas has been asked to rule before an Aug. 15 deadline that Shelly Sterling and Ballmer set to complete the transaction. The NBA has said it will move to seize the team and hold its own auction if the deal is not done by Sept. 15.

In a trial that stretched over more than two weeks, testimony by Spar and Platzer was central. Both stood by their findings that Donald Sterling had cognitive impairment and failed certain tests — such as drawing numbers on a clock and counting backward, by 7s, from 100 — that someone of his educational level would be expected to complete.

Sterling also testified, offering fierce denunciations of everyone from the leaders of the NBA to Bert Fields, the venerable Hollywood lawyer who examined him. Sterling disrupted the trial on the third day when he lashed out at his wife, calling her "you pig" and accusing her of lying.

The real estate magnate's lawyers lost several skirmishes during the trial. Levanas rejected the argument that Spar and Platzer's findings should be inadmissible because the two allegedly violated Sterling's privacy rights by releasing his medical reports to the court. The judge also denied their bid to call Shelly Sterling's lawyers to testify, in an attempt to show that they helped orchestrate a plot to find Donald incapacitated.

Donald Sterling's lawyers initially offered a list of 14 witnesses, but called only two — Dr. Cummings and Dean Bonham, whom they described as an expert in assessing the value of sports franchises.

Bonham testified that he believed Donald Sterling could get more than $2 billion if he stopped the Ballmer deal and sold the team later. But Bonham took a beating from Shelly Sterling's attorneys — who brought out that he had not graduated from high school or college and had no special training in franchise valuations.

Bonham had listed one of his previous positions as president of the Denver Nuggets of the NBA. In cross examination, Pierce O'Donnell called that contention "absolutely false." Bonham acknowledged his actual title was president of marketing and sales.

Both sides said that the key decisions for Levanas will not be on the late testimony but on a set of somewhat arcane legal questions that will turn largely on legal precedent.

The judge must decide if Donald Sterling's 11th hour dismantling (or "revocation") of the family trust can stop the Ballmer deal. If he decides the revocation cannot reverse the sale, he must then determine whether to issue a special order that would enforce the sale, regardless of an appeal by Sterling.

Levanas would have to find there would be irreparable harm to the Sterling Family Trust to grant the latter order, which O'Donnell said after court Wednesday might be the judge's most important decision.

"If you don't let this sale go through and meet the deadline for the sale," O'Donnell said, "an incredibly valuable asset will fall like a rock."

Donald Sterling attorney Bobby Samini said that the revocation should preempt the judge from making any decision. "There is a really big issue to be decided," Samini said, "which is whether or not the court actually has any jurisdiction to make a ruling in this case."

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Twitter: @nathanfenno