LOS ANGELES (CN) – L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling cannot block the $2 billion sale of the NBA team that his estranged wife Rochelle Sterling brokered against his wishes, a probate judge ruled Monday.
Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas said he found Rochelle Sterling a more credible witness than her husband, who shouted at attorneys during several days of testimony, and called his wife “a pig.”
Levanas said he found credible Rochelle Sterling’s claim that allowing her husband to retain control of the team would harm the franchise.
Rochelle Sterling agreed in May to sell the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.
“This is a new day in Los Angeles. It’s a new day for the Los Angeles Clippers,” Shelly Sterling’s attorney Pierce O’Donnell said outside the courthouse. “It was one woman who stood up against her husband, and had the courage to go to court. She prevailed. So for the cynics out there, you know, sometimes it works out OK. This is a Hollywood ending.”
In the developing legal saga, Donald Sterling last week sued his estranged wife, the Clippers and the National Basketball Association, seeking to block the sale of the Clippers to Ballmer.
In that lawsuit, Sterling claimed his wife and the NBA tricked him into undergoing medical examinations to declare him mentally incapacitated, to oust him as co-trustee of The Sterling Family Trust.
Donald Sterling allegedly revoked his shares in the family trust in June, reverting shares in the Clippers back to himself as sole shareholder of the team. He claimed that his wife therefore has no right to vote Clippers shares and sell the team.
Also in June, Shelly Sterling petitioned the probate court to confirm her as The Sterling Family Trust’s sole trustee and to approve the sale to Ballmer under California’s Probate Code § 1310 (b). The trust is the sole shareholder of LAC Basketball Club LLC, which owns the Clippers.
On Monday, Judge Levanas issued a tentative oral ruling in the case, finding credible Shelly Sterling’s claim that she was a concerned wife who was acting on her husband’s behalf when she consummated the sale.
“The court clearly has the discretion to order, and does order, the 10-b,” Levanas said.
During final arguments Monday morning, attorney O’Donnell said the certifications of two examining doctors provided enough evidence to drop Donald Sterling from the trust and install his wife as the sole remaining trustee.
“At the heart of this case is a curious fact,” O’Donnell told the court. “Everyone agrees this is fair deal.”
Furthermore, Shelly had no legal obligation to tell her husband that he could be removed as co-trustee, the attorney said, and Donald was legally obliged to undergo the exams under the husband and wife’s trust agreement.
O’Donnell, with Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger, painted his client as a “genuinely concerned” wife who was trying to help her husband.
“Yes, they’re estranged. Yes, he said some horrible and hurtful things about her in this courtroom. But she remains his primary and indeed only caregiver,” O’Donnell said.
Donald Sterling had urged his wife to sell the Clippers, O’Donnell told the court, fearing that the NBA would terminate his ownership at a June 3 vote.
But Donald Sterling changed his mind when the NBA handed him a lifetime ban.
“He wanted to sell the team,” O’Donnell said. “Shelly did his bidding.”
The attorney said the Clippers faced a “death spiral” if Donald Sterling was allowed to retain ownership of the Clippers – that fans, sponsors, the coach and players would jump ship if he remains in control.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined Donald Sterling $2.5 million and barred him from the NBA for life after investigating racist comments that Sterling made during a conversation with a former girlfriend.
In a leaked audio recording, published on the Internet, Sterling can be heard, apparently admonishing the woman for inviting black friends to Clippers games.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” Sterling apparently said on the leaked recording. “You can sleep with [them]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
In urging the court to deny the petition, Donald Sterling’s attorney Max Blecher said that his client was the victim of an “invidious scheme.”
“Her hands are not unclean,” Blecher said of Shelly. “They’re filthy. Filthy!”
The attorney added: “She feathered her nest in a very sweetheart deal with Mr. Ballmer. That can’t be allowed to stand.”
But in finding for Shelly Sterling, Judge Levanas noted that she had made clear that the Clippers could lose value if Donald continued to pursue his legal claims, or if the NBA seized control of the team.
O’Donnell said during closing arguments that Donald was on a legal “jihad” against the NBA, and that Sterling had said he would spend the rest of his life suing over his ousting.
“The risk of harm is not speculative,” Judge Levanas said.
Shelly Sterling’s attorneys said they hoped the judge would issue a final order by mid-August.
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