Jamie McCourt earned a law degree, made Law Review, received an MBA and worked as general counsel for a real estate company. But she also signed one of the most important documents of her life without reading it, she says: the agreement that gave her husband sole ownership of the couple’s prized possession, the Dodgers.
On Monday, the sixth day of the bitter divorce trial of Jamie and Frank McCourt — one that could impact ownership of Los Angeles’ cherished Major League Baseball club — Jamie was steadfast in her insistence that she didn’t realize what the contract meant if they were to split up.
Frank’s attorney, Steve Susman, read back part of Jamie’s deposition in which she said about the agreement, “I still don’t understand it as I sit here today.… It’s over my head.” He also plucked out of her deposition her two-word explanation for generally not reading legal documents: “It’s boring.”
All were jarring admissions to hear from McCourt, who took pride in being the highest-ranking woman in baseball before her husband fired her last year.
And Susman wasn’t buying it.
“That was as fictional as Harry Potter,” Susman said outside the courthouse as the shiny black stretch bus that ferries Frank McCourt’s legal team to and from court awaited them.
At issue in this trial is the validity of the couple’s agreement — something further complicated by the fact that both McCourts inadvertently signed different versions of the contract.
McCourt testified that she didn’t read any of the copies carefully because the couple’s Massachusetts lawyer, Larry Silverstein, told her the agreement would accomplish what she contends they both wanted — to shield their millions of dollars of personal real estate from business creditors by making them her separate property.
“I trusted him,” she said of Silverstein.
McCourt testified that she was accustomed to Massachusetts law in which the courts equitably distribute property if a couple divorces. She has said she did not realize that in California — a community property state — a post-marital agreement would govern how assets were distributed. But Susman confronted her with paragraph after paragraph of her own lawyer’s cover letter explaining the impact of drawing up an agreement to separate their property under California law. He also mentioned the warning at the beginning of the agreement.
“You saw in capital letters: ‘THIS MARITAL PROPERTY AGREEMENT AFFECTS IMPORTANT PROPERTY RIGHTS.’ You saw that, didn’t you?” asked Susman.
“I might have,” said McCourt. She added, “I can’t say whether I saw that when I glanced at it or not.”
“You do know that as a lawyer choosing not to read something is not a defense against its enforceability?” Susman asked.
“I know my lawyer said it did what I wanted,” she responded.
Susman seized on details of her Boston lawyer’s letter to her. “He says: ‘As we discussed, California is a community property state.’ Did you have this conversation with him or was he hallucinating?”
“I can’t speak for him, or if he was hallucinating,” said McCourt, ignoring both Susman’s sarcasm and the chuckles in the courtroom.
It was an odd verbal combat — the more she parried, the more he bore in, once swiping his sweating brow with a handkerchief and occasionally sighing at “I don’t know” answers.
Referring again to the marital property agreement, Susman asked, “You did have the intelligence, education, sophistication to understand the English language words as you read them?”
“I hope so,” she said. Dressed in a pale peach sweater and skirt, she eyed him coolly.
But it wasn’t just the property agreement, Susman pointed out to her. She signed off on loan applications, statements to Major League Baseball and public relations memos all of which referred to Frank as the sole owner of the team.
“From a title perspective, Frank was the owner,” she conceded. “He was the designated person for Major League Baseball. But in my mind, everything was the marital estate. We had worked together to earn it.… Frank likes to be called the owner. And that’s fine with me. It’s been that way for 30 years.”
Amid the questions about e-mails and legal documents, she offered a sketch of her life as the wife of a man easily irritated. A picture of a note she wrote on March 31, 2004, flashed on a screen in the courtroom. That was the day she signed the marital property agreement —and the day the couple flew on a private plane from Massachusetts to California.
“Frank freaked out because we had to land in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for no apparent reason. That means YAM,” it read.
And what did YAM mean?
“That means he is yelling at me,” she said.
Her attorney, Dennis Wasser, afterward dismissed her not reading the marital property agreement as a habit of the rich. “They have documents thrust in front of them all the time,” Wasser said. “Neither of them read the documents they signed.”
He added that no lawyer explained to her what signing the agreement would mean regarding the Dodgers: “If anyone had said to her, ‘By the way, if you get divorced, the Dodgers go to Frank,’ she would have asked questions.”