Testimony Begins in Sterling Trial After Judge Denies Request for Delay

The four-day trial will look at whether Shelly Sterling acted within her rights when she negotiated a deal to sell the Clippers

By Jonathan Lloyd and Wire Reports
|  Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014  |  Updated 6:57 AM EDT
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The trial between Donald and Shelly Sterling, who are fighting over the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, started Monday in Los Angeles. Kim Baldonado reports for NBC4 News at 5 p.m. from downtown Los Angeles Monday, July 7, 2014.

Kim Baldonado

The trial between Donald and Shelly Sterling, who are fighting over the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, started Monday in Los Angeles. Kim Baldonado reports for NBC4 News at 5 p.m. from downtown Los Angeles Monday, July 7, 2014.

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Sterling v Sterling in "Procedural Limbo"

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas delayed the start of the trial while Donald Sterling's lawyers sought a decision from a federal judge on whether to take the case. Toni Guinyard reports for the NBC4 News at Noon on Monday July 7, 2014.
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The legal battle over whether Shelly Sterling has authority under a family trust to sell the Los Angeles Clippers took a short detour to federal court Monday, with Donald Sterling contending his federal privacy rights were violated by the disclosure of his medical records to his wife and the public.

The federal court filing prompted a delay in a non-jury trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, where a probate judge was scheduled to determine if Shelly Sterling acted within her authority when she negotiated a $2 billion deal to sell the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Donald Sterling's court papers, filed Thursday, asked that the case be transferred instead to federal court.

An attorney for Shelly Sterling told NBC4 "there's nothing here in this case that this judge in probate court can't decide."

U.S. District Judge George Wu rejected Sterling's case, clearing the way for Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas to begin hearing testimony. When court reconvened, Shelly Sterling's attorneys called Donald Sterling as their first witness – but he was not in court, causing another delay.

Testimony began Monday afternoon when a neurologist testified that she examined Donald Sterling, and concluded he has had Alzheimer’s for three to five years.

“We think it’s a tragedy to have our clients medical records essentially put out for public display and that’s something we’re gonna focus when we get our turn," Donald Sterling's attorney Bobby Samini said Monday afternoon.

Sterling's attorney objected to every single question about his medical record, but the judge let the questions be asked.

“This is the desperation of a desperate man who will do anything, anything he can with his money, and his lawyers, to block this incredibly wonderful sale for #2 billion to Mr. Ballmer,” Shelly Sterling's attorney Pierce O'Donnell said.

Donald Sterling is expected to take the stand Tuesday. His lawyer told NBC4 that Tuesday would be an interesting day, adding that there would be "a lot to write about."

Shelly Sterling struck the deal to sell the Clippers to Ballmer after Donald Sterling's racist remarks to a girlfriend were publicized and the NBA moved to oust him as team owner. In order to do so, she had two doctors examine her 80-year-old husband and they declared him mentally incapacitated and unable to act as an administrator of The Sterling Family Trust, which owns the Clippers.

Attorneys on both sides agreed last week that the Superior Court proceedings will focus on whether Donald Sterling was induced into undergoing mental examinations by two doctors without being told the reason.

But there will be no rebuttal testimony from Donald Sterling's attorneys challenging the findings by the two physicians that he was mentally incapacitated, which his wife maintains gave her authority to sell the team.

The terms of the trust say incapacitation can be determined by two licensed doctors without ties to the family who are specialists in their field. A trustee must cooperate with such exams.

The judge must find that Shelly Sterling acted in accordance with the trust and that the deal still applies — even though the trust has since been revoked by Donald Sterling — for the sale to proceed.

Donald Sterling's attorneys say that his wife "blindsided" him and he submitted to examinations under false pretenses. They allege there was undue influence in the doctors' findings, and that the exams and letters regarding his mental capacity were defective and incomplete.

They say that if he'd been properly informed, he would have participated at a more convenient time instead of being pulled out of legal meetings.

"He would have also eaten properly and have been well rested for the examinations and focused on taking the exam with the full and complete understanding what it was for and the serious nature of the exam," they wrote in filings.

But Shelly Sterling's attorney, Pierce O'Donnell, said that Donald Sterling voluntarily went to take scans of his brain and there was no requirement to remind Donald Sterling, who is an attorney, or his legal team of the trust's conditions.

The trial will also focus on the question of what happens to a deal that hasn't been closed once a trust is revoked. Donald Sterling revoked the trust on June 9 — weeks after Shelly Sterling negotiated the deal with Ballmer.

Shelly Sterling's attorneys also contend that finishing the deal is part of "winding down" the trust's affairs and that she has an obligation to close or Ballmer will sue.

Donald Sterling's attorneys argue that the probate court now lacks jurisdiction and that winding down affairs refers to passive actions, not a sale that markedly changes the assets in the trust and its value.

Donald Sterling's attorneys made a late move last week to shift the case to federal court so their allegations of medical privacy violations in the probate case can be heard.

Attorneys for both Shelly Sterling and Ballmer called the filing a "desperate" tactic that they would seek to block.

It was not immediately clear when a federal judge would rule on the filing or how it would affect the probate proceedings, but the trial remained on schedule to start Monday morning.

Whatever happens, timing is tight. NBA owners must approve what would be a record-breaking deal and are scheduled to meet July 15 to vote.

That's the same day Ballmer's offer is set to expire — and there is no deal without the judge's approval of the sale.

If the sale isn't completed by Sept. 15, the league said it could seize the team and put it up for auction.

NBC4's Kim Baldonado and Samia Khan contributed to this report. 

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