LOS ANGELES – A judge gave Shelly Sterling a sweeping victory Monday afternoon and cleared the way for former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s record $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers to proceed.
In a tentative oral decision, Judge Michael Levanas ruled in Shelly Sterling’s favor on all three counts and rejected virtually all of Donald Sterling’s arguments in the probate trial in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The ruling included the rare step of granting Shelly Sterling’s request for an order under section 1310(b) of California’s probate code that allows the sale to be completed regardless of an appellate court’s intervention.
“Ballmer paid an amazing price that cannot be explained by the market,” Levanas said.
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Levanas also ruled Shelly Sterling, 79, acted properly when two doctors declared her husband mentally incapacitated in May under terms of the Sterling Family Trust before she proceeded to agree to sell the Clippers to Ballmer.
The judge endorsed the argument interim Clippers chief executive Richard Parsons made earlier in the trial that the franchise will enter a “death spiral” if 80-year-old billionaire Donald Sterling retains ownership. Donald Sterling revoked the trust in June, but Levanas said the court retained jurisdiction over the matter.
The judge announced his ruling minutes after closing arguments in the case concluded. The totality of Shelly Sterling’s victory quickly became clear, as Levanas derided the testimony of Donald Sterling’s two witnesses and rejected frequent claims by his lawyers of a “secret Plan B” to oust him as Clippers owner.
Levanas called Shelly Sterling’s testimony “far and away more credible” than her husband’s and believed genuine concern for his well-being motivated her arranging the mental exams in May.
Shelly Sterling embraced her attorney, Pierce O’Donnell, in the courtroom after the ruling. Donald Sterling did not attend.
During the morning’s closing arguments, Max Blecher, an attorney for Donald Sterling, accused Shelly Sterling of “an invidious scheme to strip Donald Sterling of his ownership rights of the Clippers.”
With a raised voice and waving arms, Blecher, calling the situation “unconscionable” and “devious,” described NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as a co-conspirator with Shelly Sterling.
Earlier, O’Donnell put the case in simple terms.
“The doctors certified Donald as incapacitated. That’s the end of the matter,” O’Donnell said.
Shelly Sterling negotiated the sale after the league banned Donald Sterling for making offensive remarks about black people.
Bobby Samini, one of his lawyers, said Donald Sterling reacted calmly to the news and told his lawyers they had to keep battling on other fronts.
“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.”
With lawsuits pending in state and federal courts, the ruling by Levanas is unlikely to put an end to the bizarre saga that began in April when a recording surfaced of Sterling scolding female companion V. Stiviano for bringing black people to games.
The NBA moved quickly to ban Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million.
Sterling was apologetic after the audio recording went viral, but his mea culpa backfired when he criticized Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson, who had been photographed with Stiviano, as a bad role model for kids because he had HIV.
Sterling was roundly condemned from locker rooms to the Oval Office, where President Obama called Sterling’s remarks “incredibly offensive racist statements.”
With the NBA threatening to seize the team and auction it, Sterling initially gave his wife of 58 years permission to negotiate a sale but then refused to sign the $2 billion Ballmer deal, which would be a record price for an NBA team. He said he would sue the league instead and then revoked the trust.
The nonjury trial focused mainly on whether Shelly Sterling properly removed her husband as a trustee and whether her actions carried any weight after he revoked the trust.
“Now we can focus on just trying to win a championship,” said Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, a graduate of Rainier Beach High School in Seattle.
Compiled from Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and The New York Times.