A probate court judge granted a four-day trial, scheduled for next month, in an effort to resolve an ongoing team ownership dispute and move forward with a sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, an attorney for the estranged wife of embattled team owner Donald Sterling said Wednesday.
Rochelle Sterling's attorney filed paperwork Wednesday morning asking a judge to affirm she was within her rights last month when she, acting with the authority she claimed as head of the Sterling Trust, negotiated a team sale to ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The judge did not rule on whether Rochelle Sterling acted properly in negotiating the deal, but instead scheduled a four-day trial to begin July 7 to hear testimony on the matter.
Her attorney and a representative of Ballmer's were in court Wednesday morning when the request was filed. The timing is important because the NBA's Board of Governors is scheduled to meet July 15 and could take up the Clippers ownership dispute.
"The judge recognized the urgency of the matter and granted to request to expedite this far earlier than the normal process," said attorney Pierce O'Donnell, who represents Rochelle Sterling, also known as Shelly.
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The trial before a judge will involve expert witnesses and testimony from doctors, O'Donnell said.
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"We're hopeful that the judge will rule promptly thereafter that Donald Sterling, sadly, was properly removed as a trustee for mental incapacity," said O'Donnell.
Donald Sterling's lawyer, Bobby Samini, left the courthouse without comment after a clerk announced the trial schedule. Neither Sterling was present.
The proposed $2 billion sale to Ballmer appeared to mark a turning point in the Sterling saga, which began after an audio recording surfaced of Sterling making racist comments and telling a companion not to bring black people to Clippers games. Donald Sterling, 80, indicated he had agreed to the proposal, but announced earlier this week that he planned to move forward with a lawsuit against the NBA.
The lawsuit alleges the league violated his constitutional rights by relying on information from an "illegal" recording when officials announced a life-time ban and substantial fine. It also claims the league committed a breach of contract by fining Sterling $2.5 million and that it violated antitrust laws by trying to force a sale, which would require approval from other team owners.
Shelly Sterling announced late last month that she had negotiated a sale of the franchise to Ballmer on behalf of the Sterling Family Trust. She claimed authority as head of the trust to negotiate the sale and claimed her husband's mental capacity is impaired.
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Her attorney said Wednesday outside of court that the provisions of the trust agreement, agreed to by Donald Sterling, make it clear that Rochelle Sterling acted within her rights when she negotiated the sale proposal.
"Mr. Sterling signed a trust agreement with a provision that authorizes his removal if two licensed physicians certify that he lacks mental capacity," O'Donnell said before the judge's decision was announced. "Three doctors have have now certified his incapacity to function as a trustee of this very complex business."
League officials have said they want a resolution as soon as possible. An extended timeline is not what Ballmer had in mind when he proposed the $2 billion deal, his attorney said.
"Mr. Ballmer is not going to stick around for years for this to wind through the courts, and the NBA has made it very clear that it will take over the team and that's a consequence that is not going to benefit the Sterling family or the trust," said Ballmer attorney Adam Streisand.
The NBA's longest-tenured owner continued to sound a defiant tone Tuesday when he released a statement in which he said he is fighting the NBA in the name of privacy rights and freedom of speech.
"I am shocked (but not surprised) that the NBA wants to take away those fundamental rights," Sterling said in the statement. "I feel that every American has to protect those rights and that the NBA should not be allowed to take away those rights. I have apologized for my mistakes. My apology is sincere. I want every American to know that I will not give up fighting for those rights."
As for the NBA's involvement at this point, the league's commissioner said it's a legal matter to be hammered out by the Sterlings and their attorneys. During an interview with ESPN at halftime of Game 3 of the NBA Finals Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league is waiting for "this dispute between Donald and Shelly Sterling to play itself out."
The league scheduled a hearing earlier this month at which team owners were to vote on Silver's request to terminate Sterling's ownership. That hearing was canceled after Rochelle Sterling announced plans to sell the team and attorneys for Donald Sterling indicated he agreed to allow her to negotiate the sale, Silver said.
In response to the statement Sterling released Tuesday, Silver said he has "no idea what (Sterling) is talking about."