Judge Holds Off on Ruling in Sumner Redstone Competency Hearing

The judge says he has a lot to digest.
David Livingston/Getty Images; Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for MTV
Sumner Redstone (left), Philippe Dauman

On Thursday, the dispute over control of Viacom took its road show to a steamy Massachusetts probate court. There, without the comfort of air conditioning, Philippe Dauman's attorneys aimed to save and expedite a lawsuit over how both the Viacom chief and George Abrams were ousted from the Sumner Redstone National Amusements Trust.

Unfortunately for those eagerly awaiting a ruling, Judge George Phelan said he isn't ready to make a decision. "Obviously I have a lot of info to digest," he said during a nearly seven-hour hearing. "It’s going to take me a while." 

The latest hearing had Phelan considering Dauman's contention that Massachusetts should be the forum to resolve claims that Shari Redstone unduly influenced her 93-year-old father. Dauman has further insisted that time is of the essence in who gets to be a Trustee on the entity that exerts voting control over Viacom and CBS.

With 43 attorneys on hand, nearly double the already massive contingent of 22 at the previous hearing, the judge listened primarily to Les Fagen, who represented Dauman, and Robert Klieger, representing Redstone. Elizabeth Burnett argued on behalf of Shari Redstone, while Pierce O’Donnell was there on behalf of the mogul's granddaughter, Keryn Redstone, who stands to be disinherited.

Dauman's lawyers wanted Phelan to quickly authorize a mental examination of Sumner Redstone to determine whether the elderly media mogul is incapacitated and susceptible to his daughter's alleged campaign to direct Viacom's fate, which includes decisions on who leads the company, whether subsidiary Paramount Pictures is sold and how networks including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon face their digital future.

"Why are they resisting discovery?" Fagen asked, referring to Klieger and Burnett. "We cannot rely on court chitchat. We need more evidence. These people have resisted discovery in three courtrooms."

The judge seemed most interested in questions of the 93-year-old mogul's health status and asked a number of questions about the credentials of those who have previously evaluated him.

Fagen bristled at Klieger's assurances that Redstone is alert and cognitively aware. “I’m just a little tired of hearing Mr. Klieger testify as the voice of Mr. Redstone. ‘Let me tell you what Mr. Redstone thinks,’" Fagen said. "The only person I want to hear from is Mr. Redstone.”

But for those looking to glean anything from Phelan's line of questioning, there were few clues. After the hearing finally adjourned at 3:30 p.m., one lawyer on the Dauman-Keryn Redstone side said, "I have no idea what this judge is going to do."

Still, the judge asked pointedly how a California judge decided a previous case involving Sumner Redstone's longtime companion Manuela Herzer without ruling on Redstone's competency. That perhaps provided a hint that he will call for an independent examination of the mogul.

The other main subject explored was whether Massachusetts has jurisdiction over the case. Although Dauman argues that the Trust is set up and administered in Massachusetts, and that the state's common law should determine whether changes to the Redstone Trust and National Amusements board are invalid, Judge Phelan also heard from the Redstone camp arguing that the lawsuit filed May 23 was improper and that the dispute should take place in California.

It’s there where Sumner Redstone resides and has filed a competing petition aimed at confirming the changes. Thursday's hearing wasn’t directed at answering the legality of moves allegedly made at Shari Redstone’s behest, but Dauman has pointed to evidence that the Trust was purposely established to rob her of any influence while Redstone submitted a declaration that allegations of undue influence are offensive and untrue.

There were plenty of theatrics throughout the hearing, with Klieger addressing allegations made by opposing counsel that his college roommate is in a movie being produced under the Viacom umbrella.

"My roommate from college is a CPA," he said, eliciting laughs from the packed courthouse.

Burnett, meanwhile, tried her best to undo the idea of Shari Redstone's possible undue influence.

“There’s no change in ‘power’ at the top," she said, making air quotes with a dramatic flourish."[The idea of undue influence] is so chock full of conjecture and layer and layer of speculation. The idea that Shari is involved in some master conspiracy is absurd."

Earlier this month, Phelan heard from lawyers representing the interests of Dauman as well as Shari, Sumner and Keryn Redstone. Attorneys for Dauman insisted that the court needed to act swiftly. But the soft-spoken judge said he needed time to consider the arguments.

In stark contrast to the billions of dollars at stake with the Viacom empire, Phelan said at the time: "I grew up in a housing project where I was lucky to have a quarter in my pocket. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of billions with a ‘B,’ and it may take me a few days."

And just as he said at the earlier hearing, the judge said he will need yet more time. Phelan asked for more documents to be sent to his court by 9 a.m. on Friday, though no further hearing has been scheduled at this point.

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