Judge rules Saints, Pelicans owner Benson is competent
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson remains competent to run his business empire, a civil judge ruled Thursday as he dismissed accusations by Benson's estranged heirs who've been ousted from ownership positions with the clubs.
The ruling legally upholds the 87-year-old Benson's decision nearly six months ago to place his third wife, Gayle, first in line to inherit control of his NFL and NBA teams and other businesses instead of the recently disowned heirs who'd been groomed to take over.
Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, sued in January, asking state civil district Judge Kern Reese to rule that their patriarch was mentally unsound and being unduly manipulated by his wife when he changed his succession plan.
Benson has stated through his lawyers that his estranged heirs have failed to prove themselves worthy of taking over his businesses.
Reese's ruling could be appealed.
"Renee Benson, and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, are disappointed that the court opted not to appoint a curator and undercurator today to protect their father and grandfather, as well as the teams and businesses," Randall A. Smith, the estranged heirs' lawyer, said in a written statement. "For his sake, and that of the fans, customers, and employees, they will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to assure his well-being and that of the Saints, Pelicans, and Benson automobile dealerships."
While Benson never took the witness stand during the trial that was closed to the public, Reese stated in his ruling that he interviewed Benson himself, rather than subjecting him to questioning by lawyers.
"The court sat across from the defendant, looked into his eyes, listened carefully to his responses, and concluded the capacity to make reasoned decisions was present," Reese wrote in his ruling.
Benson first notified his heirs of his decision last December in a type-written letter that he signed. His estranged heirs had submitted the letter as evidence of Tom Benson acting out of character, noting that had been under numerous medications from recent knee surgery.
However, the judge noted that when he interviewed Tom Benson this past April, Benson "had clarity of thought and volition, despite some memory lapses, that led the court to conclude that the foggy state of December 2014 had cleared.
"Louisiana courts have held that just because a person has memory lapses does not mean the court should impose the harsh remedy" of declaring someone incompetent to handle their own affairs, the judge stated.
Reese also noted that he found "perhaps the most credible fact witness" during trial earlier this month to be nurse Takiyah Daniels, who was present when Tom Benson signed the December letter to his daughter and her children.
Daniels testified that Tom Benson "agonized over distancing himself from his family members, cried about it, read the letter three times and then decided to place his signature on the document," Reese wrote. "No one stood over him while he signed it. It was his decision."
The judge had also ordered a mental evaluation by three psychiatrists -- one selected by each side and a third physician who was agreed upon by the first two, and who was expected to be more neutral.
During the eight-day trial, Tom Benson's lawyers called their psychiatrist, Dr. John Thompson of Tulane University, and the more neutral physician, Dr. Kenneth Sakauye of the University of Tennessee, as witnesses. They testified that Benson, largely because of his age, showed signs of "mild cognitive impairment" that affects his short term memory, "but does not rob him of his own volition to make reasoned decisions" or leave him "vulnerable to undue influence."
The psychiatrist hired by the estranged heirs, Dr. Ted Bloch III, testified that Tom Benson's impairment was "moderate to severe," the judge wrote.
Renee Benson is Tom Benson's only living child and for decades has worked in his businesses in Texas and Louisiana.
Rita LeBlanc began working for the Saints full time in 2001 and after Hurricane Katrina became one of the premier public faces of the franchise during ceremonies on game days or events involving civic or business leaders. She performed similar tasks for the Pelicans after her grandfather bought the NBA team in 2012.
Ryan LeBlanc managed some of his grandfather's businesses, primarily in Texas.
Gayle Benson, 68, is a former interior decorator who married Tom Benson in 2004. Dennis Lauscha, who serves as president for the Saints and Pelicans, has publicly endorsed Gayle Benson's ascension in ownership as a step toward preserving continuity. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who also serves as a Pelicans vice president, has supported the change as well.
The estranged heirs still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars. But Tom Benson has sought to swap out assets in irrevocable trusts he'd set up for his daughter and her children to remove their ownership stakes in his teams and other businesses.
Benson's attempt to change the trusts is tied up in a separate lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans.
A third lawsuit involving an older trust that benefits Renee Benson and contains business interests in the San Antonio area is ongoing in probate court in Texas. There, a judge has appointed temporary receivers to oversee the trust that had previously been controlled by Tom Benson. That case does not involve the Saints and Pelicans.