In a trial that could determine whether Donald Sterling can retain ownership of the Clippers, a neurologist testified Monday that she used brain scans and a two-hour examination to conclude that the billionaire suffered from Alzheimer's disease and could no longer manage his own affairs.
When confronted with the news on May 19 that he suffered from the progressive brain ailment, Sterling responded with a seeming non sequitur. "I am hungry. I want to eat," Sterling told his wife, Shelly, and Dr. Meril S. Platzer, according to the doctor's testimony.
The trial in probate court was delayed until midafternoon when Donald Sterling's lawyers made an unsuccessful bid to move the case to federal court.
A key issue is whether Donald Sterling was properly removed as a trustee of the family trust that controls the team, thereby allowing Shelly Sterling to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.
The trial is expected to continue at least through Thursday, with Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas to rule on whether the incapacity finding was properly reached — or instead was induced through fraud or Shelly's undue influence. He will also decide whether Donald's revocation of the trust on June 9 effectively killed Shelly's sale of the team on May 29 to Ballmer.
Platzer said she found the 80-year-old Sterling incapacitated after a CT scan, a PET scan and a lengthy conversation and testing at his Beverly Hills home. She rejected suggestions previously made by Sterling's attorneys that the exam was a setup designed to push him aside or that her decision grew, in part, out of a night of dinner and drinks that followed the checkup.
The Alzheimer's and dementia expert acknowledged that she joined Shelly Sterling, 79, at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge after the evaluation. She testified that Shelly seemed "shocked" and "very concerned" about her husband of 58 years.
Fifteen minutes later, Donald Sterling arrived with one of his lawyers, Bobby Samini, and a friend. The three men joined the two women, even though Shelly Sterling asked them not to, Platzer testified.
Platzer said she had only half a glass of wine during the lengthy dinner. Asked by Shelly Sterling's attorney, Pierce O'Donnell, whether the outing had any influence on her diagnosis of Donald, she replied, "Absolutely not."
Outside of court at the end of the day, O'Donnell accused Donald's lawyers of character assassination for suggesting the incapacity finding was a result of observations the doctor made after the group had been drinking.
The testimony came as the two sides spun starkly divergent stories about the record $2-billion sale of the Clippers toBallmer.
Shelly's lawyers painted her as the stolid wife who tried to respond to a crisis created by her husband when he was caught on an audio recording telling a companion not to bring blacks to Clippers games. Shelly's advocates described how she got top value for the team, thereby protecting herself, her two surviving children and her estranged husband.
"The court has to look at this," said Bert Fields, another of Shelly's lawyers, after the hearing. , "On the one hand we have $2 billion from the sale for the family, the children and the grandchildren. And on the other hand what do we have? We have this selfish man's ego and that is all."
A filing by Donald Sterling's lawyers suggested he was looking out for Shelly, not himself, when he signed a letter on May 22 giving her permission to shop the team to potential buyers. He believed she would be able to maintain a stake of 20% or 30% in the team, the court papers said. Instead, Shelly agreed to sell 100% of the Clippers to Ballmer.
"Donald felt guilty that he had brought all this on his wife and she should not be punished and lose her 50% ownership in the NBA's termination proceedings," Donald Sterling's trial brief declared. When Sterling realized Ballmer would get the entire team, he backed away from the sale, the brief said.
Donald Sterling's lawyers focused on the purported lack of notice about the nature of the mental exams as a critical flaw in the incapacity finding. He believed the doctors were seeing him solely because of his wife's concerns about his health, only to learn later that he was being set up to wrest away control of the Clippers, his advocates said.
Shelly Sterling's team scoffed at the notion that she had an undue influence over her husband. "Donald is a far more aggressive, overbearing person than Shelly," her trial brief to Judge Levanas said, "and she could hardly be called dominant in their relationship."
The doctor's testimony in the case did not come until Donald Sterling's lawyers failed in two attempts to block it.
First, they asked a federal judge to rule that the examinations could not be used because of privacy violations, under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. But U.S. District Judge George H. Wu ordered the case back to Levanas' court, saying that "the probate court is more than capable" of evaluating the privacy claims and that a "probate exception" prevented a federal court from intervening.
After Wu's rejection of the case, Sterling attorney Gary M. Ruttenberg still argued vehemently that Donald's privacy rights had been breached, also in violation of a state law, and that the twin incapacity reports should be thrown out and the two doctors barred from testifying.
Levanas rejected that argument. But the short day in court got its most theatrical moment a little earlier because of the man who was not there — Sterling.
He did not come to the downtown courtroom because his lawyers said they believed the delay for the federal court hearing and testimony by Platzer and another doctor would fill the entire day.
But O'Donnell surprised the courtroom by calling Sterling as his lead witness. The lawyer turned dramatically toward the door, knowing Sterling would not appear. He then suggested Levanas might want to issue a warrant.