Pierce O’Donnell not only represented Shelly Sterling last year in the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion, he continued representing Sterling when she went after V. Stiviano, the woman whose relationship with Donald Sterling triggered last year’s sale. Earlier this month, Shelly Sterling prevailed in the very unusual and high-profile case when a judge ruled she can recoup $2.6 million worth of cash, gifts, cars and a house that her estranged husband had given Stiviano. O’Donnell, who joined the Century City office of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger last year, spoke to the Business Journal last week to share his thoughts on his courtroom victory.
Question: What was your strategy in this case?
Answer: The conventional wisdom in the family law bar is that Shelly was obligated to sue only Donald, a spouse who breached his fiduciary duty by gifting all of this money to his mistress. And when her divorce lawyers and we looked at this, we said, No, there’s a family code statute that says she doesn’t have to sue Donald. She can sue the recipient of the gifts, that would be Stiviano. This is rarely used. Nobody is aware of any case where the spouse is going after the husband’s mistress, and nobody is aware of a case where we have this magnitude of gifts. Family law experts say it’s unprecedented and several family law experts have said they were shocked and surprised. So what we did in this case at Greenberg Glusker is we tried to figure out what would be an innovative approach. We had a statute that was rarely used and we used it.
How did this preparation process differ from other major cases you’ve worked on?
I have a pattern. It’s like a fighter going into training – it’s just focus. If you hunker down, you spend long hours mastering the facts. Joe Friday used to say to the lady in the old “Dragnet” series, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” I’m obsessed with what the evidence is. I particularly want to know what the best evidence is for my adversary. How do I counter that? How do I anticipate that? How do I have my witness on the stand on direct examination deflate what’s going to be important cross-examination points. All of these things I do just religiously to prepare so when you go in the courtroom, there are no surprises.
Did anything stick out to you about this case?
Yes. V. Stiviano had 18 accounts in three banks. We found millions of dollars flowing through those bank accounts. She has more bank accounts than Zsa Zsa Gabor has ex-husbands. That to me was a shocker. (A representative for Stiviano’s attorney denied she held 18 accounts.)
What was your first thought after you won?
After 40 years, it’s always a sense of relief. My friends say I’m motivated by a fear of failure. If that’s what gets me motivated, then so be it. But really, my primary reaction was just joy for Shelly. She’s an extraordinary woman. She’s very brave. She stepped out from behind Donald’s shadow and got the Clippers sold for $2 billion, a record-shattering price. Now she’s stepped out from the shadows again to take on Donald’s mistress. You can only rub it in someone’s face for so long before they do something. And in Shelly’s case, she did it. It wasn’t about the money: It was about the principle. It was about integrity. It was about respect. The victory is not just for Shelly and her family, it’s a victory for all spouses, particularly for women.
How did you celebrate?
It was 7 p.m. when I got it and I had a brief due the next morning for another client. So in between fielding press calls and getting the decision to Shelly and my colleagues, I was writing a brief. That’s just the nature of my life; I live by other people’s deadlines. I went in and told my wife and we were happy. But then I went back to work. I was up until 2 a.m.
Are you anticipating an appeal on the case?
Well, (Stiviano) said she’s going to appeal and she has a right to file an appeal within so many months after the decision, but she has to post a bond of 1.5-times the value of the judgment. That would be several million dollars. … We fully intend to move aggressively to get the house back, and have her leave the house and collect any money we can find in those 18 bank accounts or whatever else she has. By the way, the Clippers have a new slogan under Mr. Ballmer, the new owner: relentless. And that’s what we’re going to be.
What’s the next big case for you?
I do work now representing a motion picture studio and producers with disputes. I have a case for a former financial adviser who’s suing her former employer for sexual harassment and personal injuries. So, a variety of things. My practice has been very selective over the years. I do complex business and civil litigation – everything from securities, antitrust, real estate contracts to intellectual properties, entertainment, and now I specialize in suing mistresses to get back money. I got a half-dozen phone calls from women after the victory was announced.