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McCourt case comes down to validity of hotly contested contract

Jamie McCourt wanted a nest egg. Frank McCourt never met a risk he didn’t want to take.

Jamie, a lawyer, said she didn’t understand a contract she signed, and got ridiculed in court for it. Frank, a wealthy businessman, said he didn’t remember exactly what his attorney told him about what he was signing.

Jamie called it “preposterous” that she would knowingly sign away her right to part ownership in the Dodgers. Frank declared it “absurd” that he would have signed a contract giving his wife all their houses as well as half of the Dodgers.

Not that either of them actually read every copy of the contested document they signed.

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So goes the summary of the McCourt divorce trial. At the end of 11 days of nearly $20 million worth of lawyers tussling in Los Angeles Superior Court, the main question comes down to this: That dully written, 10-page document the McCourts paid $8,000 to have drawn up — is it valid or not?

Judge Scott Gordon has 90 days to decide if the sides can’t achieve what he’d really like: a settlement.

The McCourts are scheduled to return to mediation Oct. 9, court spokesman Allan Parachini said. They are also expected to meet individually with the mediator before then.

On Wednesday, separated by their attorneys, Frank and Jamie were both sleekly dressed as they watched their lawyers make their final pitches to the judge.

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Prosaic as the marital property agreement at the heart of the case was designed to be, it prompted passionate, day-long closing arguments from both sides.

Scoffing at Jamie’s varied arguments to justify her case, Frank’s attorney, Steve Susman said, “Mrs. McCourt is opportunistic and will ride whatever horse she has to the finish line.”

Jamie’s attorney, Dennis Wasser, said the marital agreement was unenforceable. He argued that the two contradictory versions of the agreement — one including the Dodgers in Frank’s property and the other excluding the team — was grounds for throwing them both out.

Larry Silverstein, the attorney who drafted the contract, conceded on the stand that he made “a scrivener’s error” when he wrote that Frank’s property was exclusive of the Dodgers. When he discovered the discrepancy, he switched a page into the contracts making the Dodgers Frank’s sole property. However, he never told his clients he was changing the document after it was signed and notarized.

Silverstein wasn’t there Wednesday, but he got another throttling.

“How can you disregard Larry Silverstein’s role in this case?” said Bruce Cooperman, one of Jamie’s lawyers. “He’s the huge elephant in the room and will always be hanging over this case.”

Wasser suggested Silverstein committed fraud — “he wasn’t doing the switch for Jamie” — and described him as unqualified to draw up the agreement and unschooled in the rules of California community property laws.

The agreement could be thrown out because Jamie signed under “undue influence,” argued Wasser — explaining that Silverstein did not spell out the values of the assets she was signing away nor tell her specifically what she would lose if she and Frank got divorced.

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“The intent here was clear and convincing —to protect the homes from business creditors,” Cooperman argued. “There was no intent to divest the parties of equitable rights to the assets they had worked so hard to accumulate over 25 years.”

Victoria Cook, one of Frank’s attorneys, said Jamie got exactly what she wanted. In remarks that had the added sting of a female lawyer scoffing at another female lawyer, Cook said, “If a woman this highly educated is not bound by a marital property agreement she asked for, who is bound by it?”

One of Frank’s lawyers, Sorrell Trope, argued that Silverstein’s change of the documents to exclude Jamie from a right to the Dodgers was, indeed, in accord with “Mrs. McCourt’s wishes.”

“I’m neither condoning nor acquiescing to Mr. Silverstein’s conduct,” said Trope, who was introduced by colleague Steve Susman as “the dean of the divorce bar” in Los Angeles. Changing the documents, Trope argued, freed Jamie from responsibility for the risky venture of buying the Dodgers. “She did not want to have the liability associated with owning the Dodgers,” he said.

Susman said Jamie’s attorneys — and the media — had made too much of Silverstein’s infamous switch. What mattered, he said, was that both parties intended to sign the agreement that gave the Dodgers to Frank and the houses to Jamie.

Jamie’s lawyers argued that she only wanted to preserve the arrangement she and Frank had in Massachusetts, where assets get divided equitably upon divorce.

Trope said such an arrangement is not possible under California law and that Jamie was now suffering “buyer’s remorse.”

Said Cook: “This is the deal they struck years ago. Although Mrs. McCourt might not like it now, she got the deal she asked for years ago.”

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carla.hall@latimes.com

bill.shaikin@latimes.com


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