Donald Sterling’s mental capabilities to be focus of court hearing

Donald Sterling
Clippers owner Donald Sterling is contesting the sale of the team to billionaire Steve Ballmer and is also disputing the claim that he is mentally incapable of managing his business affairs.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

By setting a July hearing on control of the Sterling Family Trust and Shelly Sterling’s sale of the Clippers to billionaire Steve Ballmer, a Los Angeles judge on Wednesday set the stage for a critical showdown in which team co-owner Donald Sterling’s mental capabilities will be front and center.

Shelly Sterling asserted control of the family trust on May 29, the day she completed the record $2-billion sale to Ballmer -- citing the expert opinions of two psychiatrists. Those psychiatrists’ reports were included in legal filings Shelly Sterling made this week and they depict the Clippers long-time controlling owner as struggling with simple math, his short-term memory and tasks the reviewers asked him to perform, such as drawing a clock and spelling backward.

Donald Sterling’s attorneys have vehemently rejected the suggestion that he is mentally not capable of handling his business affairs and said they will produce their own expert witnesses for the upcoming hearing, who they expect to pronounce him more than capable of running the Clippers and his real estate empire.

“We will have our own medical experts to refute the nonsense that is in these reports,” said Bobby Samini, one of Sterling’s attorneys. He declined to go into the specifics of Sterling’s condition but said that the experts hired by Shelly Sterling had a predisposition toward ousting Donald Sterling from the family trust and control of the Clippers.


“The reports were to obtain a particular purpose, and they got it,” Samini said.

Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas set July 7 for the start of a hearing into Sterling’s mental capability and whether the probate court should intervene to order a completion of the Clippers sale. Levanas set aside up to four days to complete the proceeding, which would allow NBA owners enough time to vote at their July 15 meeting on whether to approve the sale to Ballmer.

The doctors cited by Shelly Sterling, however, offered long reports on their professional bona fides and strong opinions about her husband’s inability to manage his affairs.

Dr. Meril Sue Platzer said Sterling, 80, suffers from “cognitive impairment secondary to primary dementia Alzheimer’s disease.” She said in a May 29 report that Sterling could not spell the word “world” backward, did not know the season and had difficulty drawing a clock. (Another expert reviewing the reports said the clock test requires the subject to put the numbers on the clock in correct order.)


An earlier PET scan of Sterling’s brain found “moderate reductions in the anterior mesial regions of the temporal lobes.” This is consistent with “neurodementia of the Alzheimer’s type,” Platzer’s letter said.

Dr. J. Edward Spar, a geriatric psychiatry expert from UCLA, said that during his May 22 visit to Sterling’s Beverly Hills home, the Clippers owner conceded: “Sometimes I get confused when I get off an elevator.” Shelly Sterling, who was present for the exam, said she noticed problems began for her husband about three years ago.

Sterling became angry when he could not complete one test and told Spar he had to get back to a meeting with his lawyers. When asked to spell the “world” backward, he declined. Spar stated that the “overall picture is consistent with early Alzheimer’s disease but could reflect other forms of brain disease.” Spar added: “Because of his cognitive impairment, Mr. Sterling is at risk of making potentially serious errors of judgment, impulse control, and recall in the management of his finances and his trust.”

These findings led Spar to believe that Sterling “is substantially unable to manage his finances and resist fraud and undue influence and is no longer competent to act as trustee of his trust.”

A third psychiatrist, doctor Stephen L. Read, reviewed the evaluations of the other two experts and agreed with their findings. “In my professional opinion, it is extremely unlikely that Mr. Sterling’s deficits in mental function are due to some treatable cause,” and therefore are not likely to be reversible.

The reports are not entirely bad for Donald Sterling. Spar’s summary says that his “affect was appropriate in direction and degree” and that “there were no abnormalities of the form, flow or content of thought.”