There's an old joke that you've probably heard, popularized in the movie Philadelphia. My apologies in advance to citizens in the legal profession, though I'm sure you understand that these sentiments are tongue-in-cheek (if also arrived at honestly).
Q: What do you call 1,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start.
When I last wrote about Donald Sterling five days ago, I had this to say:
It seems like [the legal dispute over the sale of the team is] over based on what Donald is saying, but stick around. Donald Sterling has never really allowed things he says on Wednesday to have any bearing on things he says on Friday. It's entirely possible that he'll completely contradict himself again before I've finished recapping the current situation. Whether it's Alzheimer's or just Donald being Donald, he doesn't seem to have much long term memory.
Well, it took him a couple of days, but sure enough, the "ready to move on" DTS of last week is once again the "I'll see you in court" DTS -- you know, the one from earlier last week.
There are a lot of factors here, not the least of which is Sterling's obviously erratic mental state. But one can't help but suspect that the plethora of lawyers surrounding DTS (a personal injury lawyer himself before he became filthy rich in real estate) is not helping the situation.
[Is it a plethora of lawyers? Can we do better? Gaggle of geese... no. Pride of lions... no. Clutch of kittens... no. Coven of witches... close. Mischief of rats. That's it, a mischief of lawyers.]
Consider the many contradictions in Donald Sterling's positions over the last two weeks alone. On May 22nd he signed a letter granting his wife, Shelly Sterling, the right to negotiate the sale of the team. When she began to do just that, he then said that she did not have the authority to do so. In case you're wondering whether there's any real confusion here, the letter read in part:
This letter confirms that Donald T. Sterling authorizes Rochelle Sterling to negotiate with the National Basketball Association regarding all issues in connection with a sale of the Los Angeles Clippers team, owned by LAC Basketball Club, Inc.
"All issues in connection with a sale" -- not a lot of wiggle room there, it seems to me. (Of course, I'm no law-talking guy.)
On May 30, just after the NBA had announced that they would submit Steve Ballmer to the Board of Governors as the purchaser of the Clippers, Sterling filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the league asking for $1 billion in damages.
On June 4, he said he was ready to move on and one of his lawyers said that the lawsuit had been dropped and that Sterling had no intention of pursuing a legal strategy.
As of yesterday the lawsuit is back on.
What has changed in those two weeks? Nothing. Nothing other than Donald Sterling's mind. Oh, and perhaps his lawyers. It's worth noting that of the four or five reversals represented in the above timeline, at least three different lawyers have been representing Sterling.
The initial agreement authorizing Shelly to negotiate the team was executed by "one of Sterling's personal lawyers"(strangely I have never seen this lawyer's name reported anywhere, but the implication from some of Sterling's other lawyers that the agreement was less valid because it came from a different lawyer is odd at best).
The statement that Sterling had no intention of suing from June 4 came from Maxwell Blecher, a different lawyer.
Yesterday's statement that Sterling would go ahead with a lawsuit against the NBA came from the office of yet another attorney, Bobby Samini.
There's an old saying that says "Too many cooks spoil the broth." A lesser known but no less valid corollary is this: "Too many lawyers spoil fucking everything up to and including the very fabric of society and will almost certainly lead to the end of civilization as we know it." It's a good saying if a bit of a mouthful.
What's strange about all of this is that based on my understanding of the situation and conversations I've had with legal experts, a lawsuit against the NBA is a total non-starter for Donald. He has one and only one legal play, itself a long shot -- he has to dispute the authority of Shelly Sterling to sell the team as the sole trustee of the trust that owns the team. If that transaction stands, then Donald is screwed.
He's suing the NBA for forcing him to sell the team -- but ultimately, the NBA didn't force him to sell the team -- Shelly voluntarily sold the team acting on behalf of the trust. Was there pressure? Sure. But there's little basis for awarding damages based on saber rattling.
As long as the transaction is in place, so is the indemnification that Shelly granted to the league against lawsuits from Donald in that transaction. So Donald is suing himself and his wife if he's not disputing the sale itself. And the only way to dispute the sale is to question Shelly's authority to transact it -- something that Donald seems reluctant to do.
Sterling is certainly disputing the fine and ban initially issued by the NBA -- those are actual punishments that he can dispute as opposed to imagined slights -- but from the strictly selfish perspective of a Clippers fan, who really cares? Whether Sterling ultimately gives $2.5M of his hundreds of millions of dollars in after-tax profit from the sale of the team back to the league is completely meaningless. As for the ban -- I'd love to see it lifted, if only to see what would happen to the man if he were to actually show his face in an NBA arena. Officially banned or not, he's a pariah at this point.
There remains some confusion as to whether the league and Steve Ballmer need Donald to actually sign off on the sale. They certainly want it -- it would make everything more comfortable -- but do they need it? In his Finals press conference last week, Commissioner Adam Silver said Ballmer's purchase of the team cannot be officially consummated until the lawsuit is resolved -- but I'm not clear on why that should be.
Regardless, while things have for the most part gone much more smoothly with this transition so far than anyone could have hoped for, the erratic Mr. Sterling was always bound to complicate things. The fact that he has a mischief of lawyers around him racking up legal fees isn't helping matters.