CANTON — In a non-descript suburban Massachusetts courtroom Tuesday, a phalanx of high-powered lawyers clashed over whether a bedridden 93-year old media mogul is mentally capable of deciding who should take charge of his $40 billion business empire.
Decades after Sumner Redstone got his start running a chain of movie theaters with his father from Massachusetts, his children, grandchildren, and longtime business partners are squabbling over his holdings, which have grown to include controlling stakes in Viacom Inc., CBS Inc., and Paramount Pictures.
Lawyers for two executives who were recently ousted from the trust that will eventually control Redstone’s companies want him to be examined by a doctor immediately and hope to take testimony from him before his health worsens.
“This poor man is holding onto life by a thread,” Leslie Fagen, an attorney for Philippe Dauman and George Abrams, who sued Redstone in Norfolk County Probate and Family Court to block their removal from his trust. “Mr. Redstone cannot speak, stand, walk, eat, write, or read. He uses a feeding tube. ... He is vulnerable at any time to mortal disease.”
Last month, Redstone replaced Dauman, Viacom Inc.’s chief executive, and Abrams, a longtime friend and lawyer, as trustees of National Amusements, a theater chain based in Massachusetts that controls 80 percent of the voting stock in Viacom and CBS Inc. Under an agreement established in 2002, seven trustees will take control of National Amusements’ assets upon Redstone’s death or incapacity
Dauman and Abrams promptly sued in Norfolk County, where National Amusements is located, saying Redstone’s daughter, Shari, took advantage of his worsening dementia to have them thrown out, isolate Redstone from his colleagues and family, and seize control of his assets. They also said the attorneys for Redstone are only “purporting” to act on his behalf.
On Tuesday, probate judge George Phelan heard arguments on Dauman’s and Abrams’s request to expedite discovery in the case. Phelan began the hearing by taking a roll call of the dark-suited attorneys representing the various parties in the case — 22 in all. To uncomfortable chuckles, Phelan pointedly observed that there were only two women among them.
Attorneys for Redstone asked Phelan to reject the request for faster discovery, arguing that Redstone’s condition is stable and that the Massachusetts lawsuit should be dismissed so the fight can be settled instead in California, where the elder Redstone is based.
“Physically, Mr. Redstone is doing better now than at any time in the recent past,” Robert Klieger, an attorney for Redstone, said. However, Klieger acknowledged the mogul struggles to speak, “other than yeses or nos, or vulgarities when Mr. Redstone gets upset about something.”
Redstone’s attorneys also argued that Dauman is simply trying to protect his “tenuous” position as Viacom’s chief executive. The company’s stock has tumbled by nearly 50 percent over the past two years, even as Dauman ranked as one of the country’s highest-paid chief executives.
Phelan gave little indication of his leanings in the case, asking attorneys only occasional questions about the implications of their legal arguments. He also prodded both sides to provide more “in-scene” details on events described in their legal filings, such as how exactly Redstone communicates (answer: through a speech therapist).
Dauman, Abrams, and Shari Redstone did not attend Tuesday’s hearing. Their attorneys declined additional comment after the hearing.
The judge did not rule on the request to expedite discovery, saying he would consider each side’s argument in advance of a hearing later this month on whether to dismiss the case. He also noted the large volume of documents in the case; the various parties filed a flurry of declarations just before the hearing, including contradicting medical evaluations of Redstone and detailed recountings of family spats.
Phelan, who grew up in Fall River and worked for years as a military and State Department attorney, including in Iraq, couldn’t resist making a wry jab at the room of high-powered lawyers and the vast riches over which they are bickering.
“I grew up in a housing project where I was lucky to have a quarter in my pocket, so I’m still trying to grasp the concept of billions with a ‘b,’ ” Phelan said from the bench. “It may take a few days for me to get there.”