McCourt trial nears its end

Each side scoffs at the other’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of mar­i­tal prop­erty deal. Judge has 90 days to de­cide case.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Carla Hall and Bill Shaikin

The costly divorce case has come down to one dully writ­ten doc­u­ment and one ques­tion: Is it valid?

Jamie McCourt wanted a nest egg. Frank McCourt never met a risk he didn’t want to take.

Jamie, a lawyer, said she didn’t un­der­stand a con­tract she signed, and got ridiculed in court for it. Frank, a wealthy busi­ness­man, said he didn’t re­mem­ber ex­actly what his at­tor­ney told him about what he was sign­ing.

Jamie called it “pre­pos­ter­ous” that she would know­ingly sign away her right to part own­er­ship in the Dodgers. Frank de­clared it “ab­surd” that he would have signed a con­tract giv­ing his wife all their houses as well as half of the Dodgers.

Not that ei­ther of them ac­tu­ally read ev­ery copy of the con­tested doc­u­ment they signed.

So goes the sum­mary of the McCourt divorce trial. At the end of 11days of nearly $20 mil­lion worth of lawyers

tus­sling in Los An­ge­les Su­pe­rior Court, the main ques­tion comes down to this: That dully writ­ten, 10-page doc­u­ment the McCourts paid $8,000 to have drawn up — is it valid or not?

Judge Scott Gor­don has 90 days to de­cide the case if the sides can’t achieve what he’d re­ally like: a set­tle­ment.

The McCourts are sched­uled to re­turn to me­di­a­tion Oct. 9, court spokesman Al­lan Para­chini said. They are also ex­pected to meet in­di­vid­u­ally with the me­di­a­tor be­fore then.

On Wed­nes­day, sep­a­rated by their attorneys, Frank and Jamie were both sleekly dressed as they watched their lawyers make their fi­nal pitches to the judge.

Pro­saic as the mar­i­tal prop­erty agree­ment at the heart of the case was de­signed to be, it prompted pas­sion­ate, day­long clos­ing ar­gu­ments from both sides.

Scoff­ing at Jamie’s var­ied ar­gu­ments to jus­tify her case, Frank’s at­tor­ney Steve Sus­man said, “Mrs. McCourt is op­por­tunis­tic and will ride what­ever horse she has to the fin­ish line.”

Jamie’s at­tor­ney Den­nis Wasser said the mar­i­tal agree­ment was un­en­force­able. He ar­gued that the two con­tra­dic­tory ver­sions of the agree­ment — one in­clud­ing the Dodgers in Frank’s prop­erty and the other ex­clud­ing the team — were grounds for throw­ing them both out.

Larry Sil­ver­stein, the at­tor­ney who drafted the con­tract, con­ceded on the stand that he made “a scrivener’s er­ror” when he wrote that Frank’s prop­erty was ex­clu­sive of the Dodgers. When he dis­cov­ered the dis­crep­ancy, he switched a page into the con­tracts mak­ing the Dodgers Frank’s sole prop­erty. How­ever, he never told his clients he was chang­ing the doc­u­ment af­ter it was signed and no­ta­rized.

Sil­ver­stein wasn’t there Wed­nes­day, but he got an­other throt­tling.

“How can you dis­re­gard Larry Sil­ver­stein’s role in this case?” said Bruce Coop­er­man, one of Jamie’s lawyers. “He’s the huge ele­phant in the room and will al­ways be hang­ing over this case.”

Wasser sug­gested Sil­ver­stein com­mit­ted fraud — “he wasn’t do­ing the switch for Jamie” — and de­scribed him as un­qual­i­fied to draw up the agree­ment and un­schooled in the rules of Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­nity prop­erty laws.

The agree­ment could be thrown out be­cause Jamie signed un­der “un­due in­flu­ence,” ar­gued Wasser — ex­plain­ing that Sil­ver­stein did not spell out the val­ues of the as­sets she was sign­ing away nor tell her specif­i­cally what she would lose if she and Frank got di­vorced.

“The in­tent here was clear and con­vinc­ing — to pro­tect the homes from busi­ness cred­i­tors,” Coop­er­man ar­gued. “There was no in­tent to di­vest the par­ties of eq­ui­table rights to the as­sets they had worked so hard to ac­cu­mu­late over 25 years.”

Vic­to­ria Cook, one of Frank’s attorneys, said Jamie got ex­actly what she wanted. In re­marks that had the added sting of a fe­male lawyer scoff­ing at an­other fe­male lawyer, Cook said, “If a woman this highly ed­u­cated is not bound by a mar­i­tal prop­erty agree­ment she asked for, who is bound by it?”

One of Frank’s lawyers, Sor­rell Trope, ar­gued that Sil­ver­stein’s change of the doc­u­ments to ex­clude Jamie from a right to the Dodgers was, in­deed, in ac­cord with “Mrs. McCourt’s wishes.”

“I’m nei­ther con­don­ing nor ac­qui­esc­ing to Mr. Sil­ver­stein’s con­duct,” said Trope, who was in­tro­duced by col­league Sus­man as “the dean of the divorce bar” in Los An­ge­les. Chang­ing the doc­u­ments, Trope ar­gued, freed Jamie from re­spon­si­bil­ity for the risky ven­ture of buy­ing the Dodgers.

“She did not want to have the li­a­bil­ity as­so­ci­ated with own­ing the Dodgers,” he said.

Sus­man said Jamie’s attorneys — and the me­dia — had made too much of Sil­ver­stein’s in­fa­mous switch.

What mat­tered, he said, was that both par­ties in­tended to sign the agree­ment that gave the Dodgers to Frank and the houses to Jamie.

Jamie’s lawyers ar­gued that she wanted only to pre­serve the ar­range­ment she and Frank had in Mas­sachusetts, where as­sets get di­vided eq­ui­tably upon divorce. Trope said such an ar­range­ment is not pos­si­ble un­der Cal­i­for­nia law and that Jamie was now suf­fer­ing “buyer’s re­morse.”

Said Cook: “This is the deal they struck years ago. Al­though Mrs. McCourt might not like it now, she got the deal she asked for years ago.”

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