Tom Benson and his lawyers haven’t had the best week in court.
On Tuesday, a judge in New Orleans refused to throw out a lawsuit brought by his jilted former heirs and instead ordered that Benson undergo a psychiatric evaluation to see if he is still fit to make decisions about the Saints, Pelicans and other assets in his business empire.
That decision came just a day after a judge in San Antonio temporarily removed Benson as the steward of a trust set up for his now-estranged daughter.
It may still be early in the Benson family legal saga, but so far, most rounds have gone to the relatives whom Benson is looking to cut out of his businesses and his life. And any hopes for quickly dispensing with their lawsuits against him appear to have faded.
In a written statement released Tuesday, Louisiana’s sole billionaire expressed confidence that he would be vindicated and insisted that recent developments have “only strengthened my resolve to defend what I have built.”
“I have instructed my attorneys to spare no effort in defending my rights and the decisions I have made,” Benson said. “The decisions I have made are well within my rights to make at any point in my life, and rest assured that I am making sound decisions.”
Still, neither judge presiding over Benson’s dispute with his relatives has been willing to dismiss their challenge out of hand.
Though Benson said he was willing to meet privately with New Orleans Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese to demonstrate that he is capable of handling his affairs, he and his lawyers resisted the idea of a psychiatric evaluation, arguing that his daughter and grandchildren had no legal basis to demand something so intrusive.
Reese wasn’t swayed after a hearing of about 90 minutes Tuesday morning, deciding that Benson will have to submit to the evaluation if he wants to eventually kill the lawsuit brought by his daughter, Renee, and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
Reese did not completely discount the concerns raised by Benson’s lawyers. The judge rejected the particular evaluation suggested by local psychiatrist Ted Bloch III, who had been proposed by Benson’s estranged relatives for the proceeding. Reese said that exam would be too invasive.
Court documents show Bloch would have ordered blood samples and an MRI, unless either had been performed recently. The exam also would have required extensive questioning and neuropsychological testing over several days.
Reese instead said Benson would undergo a less specialized exam typically used in these types of cases. Bloch and two other physicians — one chosen by Benson’s lawyers and another chosen jointly by that doctor and Bloch — will have until March 13 to evaluate Benson and report their findings. The three-physician team should be assembled by Feb. 25, Reese said.
Dr. David Naimark, a forensic and geriatric psychiatrist in San Diego, said Reese’s opting for a less invasive exam was not surprising. The kind of testing Bloch proposed is what doctors would do in search of treatment possibilities for patients late in life who are experiencing worsening mental issues. That’s beyond the scope of what Reese is interested in, which is to determine whether Benson is mentally capable of caring for his property and health, Naimark said.
“What most courts would be looking for would be the answer to the question, ‘Is a person capable of making a given decision?’ ” Naimark said.
Naimark also said it’s common for judges to solicit the opinions of multiple experts in disputes over mental capacity where those involved have the resources to afford them.
Benson’s lawyers — among them Phillip Wittmann, James Gulotta Jr. and Matthew Almon — went into Tuesday’s hearing hoping to convince Reese to throw out the lawsuit altogether. Benson’s side argued that his relatives lack a legal basis to dispute whether he was acting reasonably and deliberately when he altered his succession plan.
In justifying the decision to name his wife, Gayle, as his heir, Benson has said that he lost faith in the professional competence of his former heirs. And he has complained that they treated Gayle, his third wife, poorly in the years since their marriage in 2004.
In their lawsuit, Renee, Ryan and Rita say Tom Benson has been unduly influenced by interlopers to shake things up while in a weakened mental and physical state.
In court on Tuesday, one of their lawyers, Randy Smith, argued that Benson’s abrupt decision last month made no sense in light of a family history in which Benson and his relatives have weathered tragedy — including the deaths of his former wives and two children — and built hugely lucrative businesses together.
Tuesday’s hearing followed a Texas judge’s decision to put ex-San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger and attorney Art Bayern in charge of a trust set up to benefit Renee and her children. They will be paid $600 an hour each from the trust for their work. Benson had been the unpaid steward of the trust.
T he ruling from Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff came after he was asked to address a temporary restraining order that had been put in place to prevent Benson from taking further action to remove business assets from the trust.
Smith tried Tuesday to introduce Rickhoff’s order as evidence there is valid concern about Benson’s ability to tend to his business matters, but Reese would not allow that, saying it was not pertinent to the issues being argued in New Orleans.
In his response on Tuesday, Benson said, “I am extremely disappointed in these lawsuits filed by Renee, Rita and Ryan against me in Texas and Louisiana that have challenged my competency and my ability to manage my own assets.”
He added, “I need not look any further than to read the allegations made against me in these multiple lawsuits to rest easy that I have made the right decisions.”