LOS ANGELES — A judge issued a sweeping victory Monday for Rochelle Sterling, ruling that she had the authority to sell the Los Angeles Clippers to the businessman Steve Ballmer, who has agreed to pay a record $2 billion for the franchise.
In the most significant parts of his ruling, Judge Michael Levanas of California Superior Court said that Rochelle Sterling had properly followed the directions of the family trust in removing Donald Sterling, her estranged husband, as co-trustee and that the sale of the team could be completed without waiting for what would be a lengthy appeal.
Rochelle Sterling, who attended court most days during a trial that stretched over three weeks and was called “a pig’’ by her husband after she had left the witness stand, wept as she left the courtroom after Levanas’ oral ruling, which will not become official until he files it in writing. Rochelle Sterling’s team of lawyers and advisers embraced as they stood to leave the courtroom. Donald Sterling was not in court Monday.
“This is a new day in Los Angeles and a new day for the Los Angeles Clippers,’’ Pierce O’Donnell, her lead lawyer, said. “And we want to go forward understanding that it was one woman who stood up against her husband, who had the courage to go to court and prevailed. So for the cynics out there, sometimes it works out OK. This is a Hollywood ending.’’
Nevertheless, her lawyers conceded that this was not necessarily the end, given that Donald Sterling, who purchased the franchise in 1981, has two other lawsuits pending. Donald Sterling, 80, was barred for life from the NBA and fined after an audio recording was released in April in which he made racist comments.
“We expect that we’re going to continue to get grenades from all directions,’’ said Adam Streisand, a lawyer representing Ballmer. “But I’ve been confident from the beginning about how this is going to work out, and I’m still confident.’’
Added O’Donnell: “He never met a lawsuit he didn’t like. We hope at this point that Donald realizes he can’t run out the clock forever.’’
Donald Sterling’s hopes of halting the Clippers’ sale rely on two legal maneuvers. The first could come in the next two weeks. The judge is expected to sign a statement of decision Tuesday, and Donald Sterling would have 10 court days to file an objection. If it is overruled, as expected, by Levanas, Donald Sterling’s lawyers say that they would file a writ, essentially an expedited appeal asking to overturn Levanas’ decision to allow the sale to be completed while the case is being appealed.
The other is a federal challenge filed last week by Donald Sterling asserting that Rochelle Sterling no longer has the authority to complete the sale because Donald Sterling became the sole shareholder after he revoked the trust June 9.
“Well it goes without saying that we’re deeply disappointed with this result and also deeply disappointed at the quality of the analysis that the judge engaged in,’’ said Maxwell M. Blecher, one of Donald Sterling’s lawyers who has represented him for many years.
Blecher criticized Levanas’ ruling, saying the judge erred on several accounts, which would be the basis for an appeal.
Levanas endorsed the theme, posited by Rochelle Sterling’s lawyers, that giving Donald Sterling the opportunity to scuttle the sale would torpedo the value of the franchise. Richard Parsons, the Clippers interim chief executive, testified last week that coach Doc Rivers has considered leaving the team if Sterling remained owner. Anwar Zakkour, Bank of America’s co-head of technology and media investment, testified that Ballmer’s sale price was 12 times the team’s revenue, an unheard of ratio.
Levanas outlined several possible outcomes of preventing the sale and concluded that it could cost the Sterling trust as much as $400 million — the difference between Ballmer’s bid and the next highest.
“Under all these scenarios, there is a massive loss in value,’’ Levanas said.
As Rochelle Sterling stepped before a group of television cameras and addressed the news media briefly outside the court, she expressed hope that her husband would drop his other legal challenges, and that she expected him to be happy with the decision.
“I’m sure he’ll be happy,’’ she said.
Rochelle Sterling said that she would attend Clippers games and hoped that her husband would join her one day in her courtside seats, saying she expected his lifetime ban to be lifted. The case had been stressful, she said.
“All I want to do now is get some sleep,’’ she said. “I haven’t slept for weeks.’’
If the remaining obstacles — the writ and the federal case — are cleared, the sale to Ballmer could be approved by NBA owners as quickly as Sept. 15.
“We are pleased that the court has affirmed Shelly Sterling’s right to sell the Los Angeles Clippers to Steve Ballmer,’’ the league said in a statement. “We look forward to the transaction closing as soon as possible.’’
Earlier in the trial, Donald Sterling, with his characteristic bombast, testified that he would be a headache for the NBA no matter how the case turned out.
“Make no mistake today, I will never, ever, ever sell this team,’’ Sterling said then. “And until I die, I will be suing the NBA to make them pay for the terrible violations of antitrust that they have imposed on my family.’’
The trial was narrow in scope, focusing on three issues: whether Rochelle Sterling had followed the directions of the trust in removing her husband as co-trustee; whether the probate court had jurisdiction over the matter; and if Rochelle Sterling won, whether the sale could proceed even if the decision was appealed.
The case often focused on probate law, which is rarely in the media spotlight.
Levanas, who early on said he was loathe to set any precedents with his ruling, was emphatic in his support of Rochelle Sterling on all counts. He ruled that the doctors who had examined Donald Sterling and ruled him mentally incapacitated had acted appropriately, and he shot down Donald Sterling’s contention that he was duped by a plan his wife and O’Donnell hatched to wrest control of the team from him.
If there was any contention over how Donald Sterling’s provocative and antagonistic testimony had played out — Levanas at times had seemed humored by it — the judge answered with a stinging critique: that Rochelle Sterling’s testimony was “far and away more credible. Donald was often evasive and inconsistent with previous sworn testimony.’’
Levanas was no kinder to some of Donald Sterling’s witnesses. Dean Bonham, a sports marketing consultant, testified that the Clippers could command more than $2 billion, but his credentials were questioned under cross-examination. “The court gives it no weight,’’ Levanas said.
The NBA moved to strip ownership of the team from Sterling in April after TMZ published a recording of a phone conversation in which Sterling made racist remarks. Although Sterling has a history of discrimination — he settled a suit with the U.S. Department of Justice for housing discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics — the recording roiled the league, and several teams — including the Clippers — considered boycotting playoff games.
Donald Sterling agreed to let his wife sell the team, but then reneged when he found out that his $2.5 million fine and lifetime ban that had been handed down by Commissioner Adam Silver would not be rescinded. That led Rochelle Sterling to remove her husband as co-trustee.
“His reaction was very calm,’’ said Bobby Samini, a lawyer for Donald Sterling, who relayed Monday’s verdict to him. “He didn’t see this as a final battleground. This is one stage of a long war. This is one battle. We had hoped for a different result, but this is not the end.’’