LOS ANGELES – A trial will be held next month to determine whether Donald Sterling, who opposes his estranged wife's planned sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, was properly removed as an administrator for the family trust that owns the team.
A probate court judge in Los Angeles Wednesday denied Shelly Sterling's urgent request to confirm her authority as sole administrator of The Sterling Family Trust so that she can unilaterally proceed with a $2 billion sale of the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Instead, the judge agreed to an expedited hearing because of looming sales deadlines.
The development is the latest in a legal tug-of-war following the NBA's decision to ban Donald Sterling for life after racist remarks to a girlfriend were recorded and publicized. Donald Sterling is fighting the decision and suing the league for $1 billion.
The league has contended the comments were bad for business and damaged both the Clippers and the NBA.
The four-day trial was granted exceptionally quickly and will begin July 7. The deadline for the sale is July 15, which also is the date the NBA's owners hope to vote on whether they will approve the sale.
Court filings Wednesday indicated the NBA has set a hard deadline of Sept. 15. If the sale isn't completed then, the league will undertake proceedings to seize and sell the team on its own.
Donald Sterling's lawyer, Bobby Samini, left the courthouse without comment after a clerk announced the trial schedule. Neither Sterling was present.
"I just want to resolve this as quickly as possible," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told The Associated Press on Wednesday in Miami at an NBA Cares event.
The crux of the case will center on the question of whether the 80-year-old Donald Sterling is mentally competent to be a co-trustee of The Sterling Family Trust, which gives him the authority to determine the team's future. According to the trust's terms, he can be ruled "mentally incapacitated" after being evaluated by two doctors, said Pierce O'Donnell, Shelly Sterling's attorney.
Shelly Sterling activated that clause in negotiating what would be a record-breaking deal with Ballmer as sole trustee. But Donald Sterling challenged the removal in a letter sent Monday to his wife's attorney said "any attempt to remove me as a Trustee of the Sterling Trust is invalid and illegal. Furthermore, any assertion that I am `incapacitated'... is false and without merit."
According to court documents, two doctors examined Donald Sterling in May and concluded that he suffers from "mild cognitive impairment consistent with early Alzheimer's Disease" or some other forms of brain disease after examining brain scans and having him undergo other tests.
"In my opinion he 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," concluded Dr. James E. Spar, who is affiliated with the division of geriatric psychiatry at UCLA.
Sterling voluntarily went to the doctors at the request of his wife, according to a person with knowledge of the proceedings who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details publicly.
A third doctor reviewed the two doctors' findings as well as Sterling's brain scans and concurred with their conclusions that he "lacks the capacity to function as trustee."
Donald Sterling's attorney, Maxwell Blecher, contested the doctors' findings in remarks Tuesday to The Associated Press.
"Anybody at his age level on a brain scan would probably show some impairment. But that doesn't mean you forget where your car keys are and you're incompetent," Blecher said. "There isn't the slightest evidence he's incapable of managing his affairs."
Donald Sterling said in a statement that he's not just fighting for the Clippers but taking a stand against the NBA, which he called "a band of hypocrites and bullies" and "despicable monsters" who want "to take away our privacy rights and freedom of speech."
"As I've said previously, if Donald chooses to litigate against us, so be it," Silver said. "So it's going to take longer than we had hoped for this transaction to close, but it'll get done ultimately. It's just a question of time."
Ballmer's attorney, Adam Streisand, said he was pleased with the trial schedule and "confident that after the trial the court is going to bless this transaction."
The NBA's general counsel, Rick Buchanan, warned in a court papers that if the judge didn't confirm Shelly Sterling's sole trusteeship and if her deal with Ballmer "is not promptly consummated, there will be substantial harm" to the Clippers, the NBA and even The Sterling Family Trust -- the last of which would be responsible for the NBA's costs related to the legal proceedings that result.
Buchanan said a recent independent survey of more than 500 Clippers fans found the majority would be less likely to support the team if Donald Sterling remained its owner. Buchanan said thousands of NBA fans worldwide have contacted the league directly or via social media to say they're hurt or embarrassed by his views and aren't sure they'll continue supporting the league and its teams. He also cited NBA player worries about the impact for the team with the upcoming NBA draft.
"Mr. Sterling's continued ownership is damaging the Clippers' and NBA's relationships with existing and potential business partners and licenses," Buchanan wrote. He said nearly all of the Clippers' local sponsors have terminated or suspended their relationships with the team, including Adidas, Commerce Casino and Hotel, Red Bull, Mandalay Bay Hotel, Virgin America and Mercedes.
Shelly Sterling's court bid aims to have a judge confirm her authority as sole trustee to ensure the Ballmer sale moves forward.
Blecher said that a representative for Donald Sterling would be at any hearing, and that the next step is to have other doctors evaluate Donald Sterling.
"I have no doubt at the end of the day the court is not going to say he's incompetent," Blecher said. "That's a very high burden in the probate court -- otherwise people would get their sisters and wife and brother-in-laws and everybody declared incompetent."