LOS ANGELES -- This legal matter, one of hundreds that have involved Donald Sterling, is different.
It pits him against his wife of 58 years.
He says she acted deceitfully and illegally when he was ruled mentally incapacitated and she sold the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion without his consent in late May. Specifically, according to court filings, Donald Sterling contends that neither his wife nor the doctors fully disclosed that the evaluations done of him would be used for legal purposes, thereby violating terms of the revocable Sterling Family Trust.
Shelly Sterling says she acted properly and responsibly, in part because the NBA sought to strip ownership rights from them, seize the club to sell it and potentially devalue the asset before the Sterlings could negotiate a deal.
While the matter headed for a July 7 trial is set to continue with a hearing today in Los Angeles County Superior Court, records and documents reviewed by USA TODAY Sports reveal the legal showdown was taking shape in the couple's home more than six weeks ago.
MORE: Last week's hearing
On May 22, Dr. James E. Spar, a geriatric psychiatry specialist from UCLA, arrived at the Sterlings' mansion in Beverly Hills. Shelly Sterling, 79, went to get Donald Sterling, 80, who was meeting with six attorneys in another room.
It was almost four weeks after TMZ had aired an audiotape that caught Sterling, longtime owner of the Clippers, making derogatory remarks about African-Americans. And it was two days after the NBA outlined the grounds for banning him from the league for life, fined him $2.5 million and sought to terminate his ownership of the Clippers.
Spar, board-certified in psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, asked Donald Sterling if he knew why Spar was there.
"I think so,'' Sterling responded, according to a letter that was written by the doctor and provided his account of the visit.
Sterling's physical health had been deteriorating. Two years earlier, he underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer. He also was suffering from hypertension, elevated cholesterol, gout, vitamin B12 deficiency, peripheral neuropathy (numbness and pain from nerve damage) and hearing loss. But at question May 22 was his mental health, according to a letter written by Spar and a letter written by a second doctor familiar with Sterling's health issues.
Spar explained he had come at the request of Shelly Sterling's attorney, Pierce O'Donnell, who had asked Spar to evaluate Donald Sterling after a PET scan (radioactive tracer to look for disease) six days earlier showed evidence the Clippers owner had "dementia of the Alzheimer's type." As Spar prepared to start the evaluation — something Sterling had undergone with another doctor three days earlier, when he had been unable to spell "world" backwards and had difficulty drawing a clock — Shelly Sterling said Spar was there for "a second opinion.''
At first, Donald Sterling was cooperative.
He told Spar he had memory problems over the past two years, sometimes forgetting names and streets and sometimes getting confused when he got off elevators. But as the evaluation progressed, Sterling grew impatient and said he wanted to return to the room with his attorneys. Shelly Sterling encouraged him to complete the evaluation.
A week later, Shelly Sterling's attorney sent a letter to one of Donald Sterling's attorneys. It said Spar and a second doctor had determined Donald Sterling was mentally incapable of carrying out the duties of the Sterling Family Trust, which owns the Clippers. Shelly Sterling, who had served as co-trustee with Donald Sterling, was now assuming full control, the letter stated.
That same day, Shelly Sterling signed an agreement with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to sell him the Clippers for $2 billion without Donald Sterling's approval -- no longer needed if she were sole trustee.
The Sterling vs. Sterling legal showdown loomed, with Shelly Sterling on June 11 asking the court to confirm her sale of the club after Donald Sterling asserted she and the doctors acted illegally. Their positions are clear and will be central during today's hearing in advance of the July 7 trial start, and will be heard and ruled on by judge Michael I. Levanas.
Today, the judge is expected to rule on whether Donald Sterling's allegations of fraud are relevant to the trial.
Donald Sterling, in court filings, says Shelly Sterling told him the examinations of him were for "other purposes" and were "induced by fraud.'' He also contends procedures to remove a trustee are "vague and have been exploited by Shelly in breach of her fiduciary duties to her husband and to Donald's detriment causing him serious harm.''
Shelly Sterling, according to court filings, argues she followed procedures spelled out in the trust because the following criteria were met: the examinations were administered by two licensed physicians and were carried out as a regular part of the physicians' practices; both physicians ruled Donald Sterling mentally incapacitated; and neither physician is related by blood or marriage to Donald Sterling or Shelly Sterling. She also contends Donald Sterling's failure to allow for the examinations would have constituted a breach of the trust.
The judge also is expected to rule on the following issues:
*The date of the trial. Donald Sterling says he needs the trial postponed until July 31 because his medical expert is traveling abroad until July 20.
*Confirmation that Shelly Sterling acted legally, to satisfy, she says, conditions of the $2 billion sale of the club. Without prompt help from the court, she says, the deal is in danger of falling through because the NBA has set a Sept. 15 deadline for closing the sale. The value of the club would drop if the deal is scuttled, she contends.
*Actions of the doctors who examined Donald Sterling. He says the doctors violated patient-doctor privilege by disclosing the results of the examination to his wife. Shelly Sterling says her husband waived that privilege when he signed the trust.
*Revocation of the trust. Donald Sterling says he revoked the trust June 9 — two days before Shelly Sterling filed papers with the court seeking confirmation of the club's sale — and the court has no right to rule on the matter because the trust has been terminated. Shelly Sterling says her husband lacked the mental capacity to make that decision and, regardless, the agreement to sell is binding. She also cites a letter signed by her husband authorizing her to negotiate a sale and sell his part of the club as evidence she acted properly.
<bullet>The validity of the examinations. Donald Sterling might seek an evidentiary hearing at which his medical expert would argue that Sterling has the necessary capacity to serve as trustee of the Sterling Family Trust. Shelly Sterling would argue that point is moot because the terms of the trust were met: two licensed physicians already have determined he is mentally incapacitated. "A 'battle' of medical expert is not relevant ... " and neither is a determination from the court.
"The attorneys are attacking it all from different fronts, which would be the appropriate thing from their standpoint,'' said attorney Bradley J. Frigon, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. "The critical thing is, can I get my own expert?''
From a medical standpoint, the focus should be on Sterling's behavior, said Dr. David B. Reuben, director of UCLA's Alzheimer's and Dementia Care Program.
"You wonder in a situation like this whether somebody is acting in the way you expect him to have acted when he was younger, and, if in fact, his behaviors are inconsistent with what his usual self was 10 years or so ago,'' Reuben said. "Then there's really cause for concern."
While stressing he could not comment directly on Sterling's condition because Sterling is not in his care, Reuben confidently made a non-medical observation about the case.
"It's kind of like a soap opera,'' he said.