A probate judge has cleared the way for the $2-billion sale of the Clippers, ruling Monday that Shelly Sterling acted properly when she removed her husband, Donald, from the family trust that owns the team.
In a tentative ruling, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas said Shelly Sterling had the authority to sell the team to former Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer.
Levanas sided with Shelly Sterling on all substantive issues, brushing aside her husband’s contention that he had been duped into being examined by doctors who deemed him mentally incapacitated.
The judge also took the rare step of granting Shelly Sterling’s request for an order under section 1310(b) of California’s probate code, which allows the sale to proceed even if Donald Sterling appeals the ruling.
Shelly Sterling’s lawyers said they hoped the deal will close by Aug. 15.
After the judge ruled, Shelly Sterling cried and hugged her attorney, Pierce O’Donnell.
“This is going to be a good thing for the city, for the league, for my family, for all of us, and I just want to thank you all,” Sterling, 79, said outside the courthouse. “I didn’t know which way it was going to go; I just tried to do the best thing for our family and for everybody else.”
Sterling said she hoped her 80-year-old husband, who was not in court Monday, would now give up his legal fight-to-the-death and drop two other lawsuits he has filed to thwart the sale.
That’s not likely.
One of his lawyers, Bobby Samini, said Sterling will ask the appeals court to vacate Levanas’ 1310(b) order. That filing, known as a writ of mandate, will happen when Levanas finalizes his decision in about 10 days, after weighing any objections.
“This is one stage of a long war. This is one battle,” Samini said. “We had hoped for a different result, but this is not the end.”
Sterling intends to move forward with his antitrust lawsuit against the NBA in federal court and another lawsuit in state court claiming he is the rightful owner of the Clippers, Samini said. If Donald Sterling prevailed, any damages would be paid by the trust because Shelly Sterling agreed to indemnify the NBA against litigation stemming from the sale.
Donald Sterling and the Clippers have been in turmoil since April 25, when TMZ.com posted a recording of him scolding his female companion, V. Stiviano, for associating with African Americans in public. He told her not to bring them to Clippers games.
In the ensuing uproar, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million, banned him for life and moved to force the sale of the team.
Shelly Sterling took control of the trust after a neurologist and geriatric psychiatrist examined her husband in May and concluded he was showing symptoms of early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Both doctors deemed him unfit to continue as a trustee.
On May 29, she agreed to sell the team to Ballmer. Donald Sterling initially supported the sale, she testified, but later said he would never agree to sell the team he bought in 1981 for $12 million.
Faced with her husband’s strident opposition, she sought the court’s validation of the transaction.
The hearing also addressed whether Donald Sterling’s revocation of the trust on June 9 preempted the probate court from hearing the lawsuit. Levanas ruled that it did not.
At trial, Sterling testified that he had concluded the doctors who examined him were “hired guns” bent on ousting him from the trust. He also criticized NBA officials, tangled on the witness stand with one of the opposing lawyers and lashed out at his wife after she testified about his faulty memory, flashes of anger and mental incapacity.
“Get away from me, you pig,” he told her as she walked near him in court.
On Monday, attorneys for both sides sought to bolster their cases in closing arguments that included arcane probate laws and allegations of duplicity and betrayal. One of the livelier exchanges occurred between Max Blecher, one of Donald Sterling’s lawyers, and O’Donnell.
Blecher accused Shelly Sterling of orchestrating “an invidious scheme” to boot her husband as a trustee.
“That’s what ‘Plan B’ was: Get rid of this guy because he’s an obstructionist. He won’t sell the Clippers,” Blecher said, scoffing at the contention that Donald Sterling had signed the trust agreement and thus was bound to accept the results of the medical exams.
“All of the deceit, all of the lies, all of the feathering of the nest should be forgiven because Mr. Sterling had a duty to cooperate?” Blecher said. “Is this some kind of joke?”
O’Donnell responded by calling Blecher’s argument “demeaning” and “desperate.”
“It is an argument for the media, not an argument for this court,” he said.
Levanas announced his ruling minutes after closing arguments concluded. The totality of Shelly Sterling’s victory quickly became clear, as Levanas derided the testimony of Donald Sterling’s two witnesses — noting that one’s “blatant misrepresentation of his expertise was remarkable.”
Levanas called Shelly Sterling’s testimony “far and away more credible” than her husband’s and said he believed her actions were motivated by genuine concern for his well-being.
In granting the 1310(b) order, Levanas accepted the contention by Shelly Sterling’s lawyers that it was unlikely that anyone would match Ballmer’s offer and that the trust would suffer irreparable harm — losing as much as $400 million in a less attractive bid — if the sale fell through.
“Ballmer paid an amazing price that cannot be explained by the market,” Levanas said. The Seattle billionaire declined through a spokesman to comment on Monday’s proceedings.
The judge endorsed the argument interim Clippers Chief Executive Richard Parsons made in the trial last week that the franchise will enter a “death spiral” if the team is not sold. Parsons said Coach Doc Rivers had indicated he might not stay if Donald Sterling remained as owner.
The NBA issued a statement welcoming the ruling.
“We are pleased that the court has affirmed Shelly Sterling’s right to sell the Los Angeles Clippers to Steve Ballmer,” it said. “We look forward to the transaction closing as soon as possible.”
While awaiting Levanas’ final written order, the NBA might get its 30-member board of governors to officially vote on Ballmer’s purchase. A three-fourths majority is needed to ratify the sale, and the league is expected to have unanimous or near-unanimous support for the transaction.
Some Clipper players expressed relief.
“Obviously we can move forward and focus on trying to build a championship team,” guard Jamal Crawford said from his off-season home in Seattle. “Now we can go in focused on what we can do as a team and what can make us better rather than worry about things that happened in the past.”
Clippers free-agent center Ryan Hollins called the ruling “a victory in a sense.”
“A lot of times you hear about racial or discriminatory cases and people with money are able to get it swept under the rug…,” he said. “This is one of the times where there is an actual penalty for someone who has a lot of money and has used racial words.”
Times staff writers Everett Cook, Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner contributed to this report.