Could Donald Sterling succeed in a legal fight against selling the Clippers?

In a newly released recording, embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling purportedly says, ‘You can’t force someone to sell property in America.’

Mark J. Terrill/AP/File
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling sits with his wife Rochelle during the Clippers NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons in Los Angeles.

In a newly released recording, embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is purportedly determined to stay at the helm. “You can’t force someone to sell property in America,” says the voice in the recording, which was obtained by

Media reports portray Mr. Sterling as ready to hunker down and litigate any attempts by the National Basketball Association to force him to relinquish the team.

Is it possible that Sterling, himself a lawyer, could succeed in that litigation?

He does have some legal options that could at least drag out the proceedings – and a few things may be in his favor, legal experts say. One area that might become especially complicated: The Clippers are reportedly owned by a Sterling family trust, which includes Sterling’s estranged wife, Rochelle Sterling, who apparently does not want to sell the team.

“One always has a fighting chance so long as the party in question has deep enough pockets and strong enough resolve. Donald Sterling not only has both but he has ... these advantages,” says Jason Maloni, chair of litigation practice, sports, and entertainment for Levick, a public relations firm in Washington and New York. Mr. Maloni comments were made via e-mail.

Sterling’s most effective course may be to focus on the recording that was released previously, allegedly featuring him making racist remarks. It was those remarks that prompted the NBA to vow a forced sale of the Clippers and to sanction Sterling with a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban from NBA activities.

The remarks were recorded illegally and disseminated without Sterling’s consent, says Jesse Choper, a constitutional specialist at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law. Therefore, he says, they might not meet the NBA constitution’s admonition that “an owner will not take any position or action that will materially and adversely affect a team or the league,” as ESPN puts it.

“This was a confidential conversation with a lady friend: He certainly wasn’t taking any position, and he never made it public,” Mr. Choper says. “The key words are ‘position’ and ‘action.’ ”

One important issue to watch could be how California’s status as a “no-fault” divorce state figures into the case, should it come to that with the Sterling family trust, says Steve Mindel, a family law specialist at the Los Angeles firm of Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein. The city already went down a somewhat similar path with Frank and Jamie McCourt, who were owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mr. McCourt sold the team for $2.15 billion in 2012, five months after Mrs. McCourt accepted $131 million in a divorce settlement, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“If two people own a house together and one of them burns it down, the court can assess penalities,” Mr. Mindel says. “It will be interesting to see if the court thinks Sterling’s actions were tantamount to destroying an asset.”

In terms of the litigation that may lie ahead, some legal experts have zeroed in on the comment from the newly released recording – “You can’t force someone to sell property in America.”

“The fact is that you can make people sell property in America under certain circumstances,” says Dan Lazaroff, director of the Loyola Sports Law Institute at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“In this case, Sterling is a party to the NBA constitution and bylaws,” Mr. Lazaroff elaborates. “That document provides for a forced sale when specific procedures are followed and articulated conditions are met. The league's position is that Sterling's comments satisfy the requirements for ownership termination. He obviously disagrees. That's why we have lawyers, juries, and judges.”

In the newly released recording purportedly of Sterling, he maintains that he is not a racist. The voice on the recording has not been confirmed as Sterling’s.

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