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Probate Court Gives Shelly Sterling Right to Sell the Clippers
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Shelly Sterling, estranged wife of the NBA Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling, faced the media array of microphones with a new smile. “I can finally get some rest”, she said. She’ll have a nice cushion – two billion dollars. That’s the price former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said he’s prepared to pay for the NBA basketball franchise, a record-setting deal for a major professional sports team.


CNN reported that probate Judge Michael Levanas ruled in Los Angeles on Monday that the deal, announced months ago, can proceed. In his favorable opinion, Judge Levanas ruled that Shelly Sterling had the right to take over affairs of the trust that owns the NBA team – a trust that is owned 50/50 by the Sterlings. At issue was the decision that gave Shelly Sterling rights to administer the trust. She had taken over as sole trustee in May of this year following the decision of two doctors that Mr. Sterling was “mentally incapacitated.” That determination cleared the way for Judge Levanas to uphold Mrs. Sterling’s right to negotiate a sale.

Moving Family and History Forward

Smiling into the camera, Shelly Sterling applauded the “equitable and fair” decision. She was obviously delighted, stating that the “new owner – new sheriff in town” gives her family, the city of Los Angeles and the NBA the opportunity to relegate this shadow on their history to the past. She further stated that her side was confident the ban imposed on team ownership will be lifted once the deal goes through. They are hoping to complete the final sale by August 13th. It must be approved by the NBA’s Board of Governors, although previous indications are that this will not be a hurdle. Indeed, the NBA expressed their satisfaction with the ruling through spokesman, Mike Bass, saying, “We look forward to the transaction closing as soon as possible.”

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The sale can proceed regardless of any appeals, according to Judge Levanas. However, the ruling is not final for another ten days, giving the opposition time to file appeals. And that’s a certainty. Maxwell Blecher, one of Donald Sterling’s team of litigants, points to “serious omissions.” He said that the judge couched his ruling such that Mr. Sterling has to get permission to appeal from the appellate, instead of simply filing the appeal in a straight forward manner. Mr. Blecher asserts that “serious deficiencies” in the quality of the judge’s analysis will not stand up on appeal once the appellate court sees the mistakes made by the probate judge.

Roadblocks for Both Sides

Despite what the appellate court might do, the fight is not likely to be over soon. It goes forward on two fronts. The first is Donald Sterling’s obdurate determination never to back down, and his own lawsuit against his wife and the NBA. Mr. Sterling’s attorney, Bobby Samini, says he took the ruling calmly, and that the Clipper’s long-time owner will never give up in his quest to sue the NBA over unlawful usurpation of his owner’s rights and anti-trust violations. “This is one stage of a long war,” Mr. Samini said.

Indeed, the sale is not entirely free of roadblocks. Stock ownership in the franchise is wholly in Donald Sterling’s name. The suit filed by him calls the Ballmer deal “unlawful and fraudulent.” In June, the family trust was revoked, cancelling Mrs. Sterling’s part in team ownership and, the lawsuit asserts, giving sole ownership back to Mr. Sterling.

Donald Sterling paid $12 million for the Clippers in 1981, and is the longest tenured owner in the league. Sunny Hostin, CNN’s legal analyst, points out that appellate courts don’t like to overturn probate decisions on facts, and the attempt to reverse the probate court will likely fail. Even though analysts feel Donald Sterling will eventually lose his decades-old ownership of the franchise, it appears for now that he plans to keep the ball in play.


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