Three different physicians will evaluate Tom Benson’s mental health to see if he is still fit to make business decisions about the Saints, Pelicans and other assets in his business empire, a judge ordered Tuesday.
Benson, feuding with the relatives he has decided to cut out of his succession plans, was resisting the idea of an independent evaluation. He said he was willing to meet privately with Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, but he argued that a psychiatric exam was too intrusive.
After a hearing of about 90 minutes on Tuesday morning, Reese decided that Benson will have to undergo the evaluation after all if he wants to kill the lawsuit challenging his new succession plans, which call for eventually handing control of his sports franchises to his wife Gayle.
Reese did reject the particular evaluation called for by psychiatrist Ted Bloch III, who was proposed by Benson’s estranged relatives. The judge said that exam would be too invasive — it involved performing extensive questioning, blood work and neuropsychological testing over the course of several days.
Instead, Reese said that Benson would undergo a standard exam 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 complete their reports. The three-physician team must be assembled by Feb. 25, Reese said.
Still, the ruling was a clear victory for Benson’s daughter, Renee, and his grandchildren Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc. It means there is a chance that Benson could be declared unfit to make the kind of drastic decision he did last month, severing all contact with Renee, Rita and Ryan, and cutting them out as his heirs.
Benson’s lawyer, Phillip Wittmann, said he was disappointed with the ruling and may ask the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to review it. But Wittmann said he was confident that a standard evaluation would vindicate the stance Benson has taken all along: that he remains perfectly capable of making sound decisions about the various businesses he owns in Louisiana and Texas.
Wittmann 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 the 87-year-old family patriarch was acting reasonably and deliberately when he altered his succession plan.
Benson has justified the switch by saying that he has lost faith in the professional competence of his former heirs, and by citing what he perceived to be their poor treatment of Gayle, his third wife.
In their lawsuit, Renee, Ryan and Rita say Tom Benson has been unduly influenced while in a weakened mental and physical state. Represented by Randy Smith and Stephen Gelé, they requested in writing that Reese make Benson demonstrate why he should not be examined by Bloch.
In court on Tuesday, in objecting to what Benson’s relatives sought, Wittmann argued that Renee, Rita and Ryan wanted a psychiatric exam authorized to go on “a fishing expedition” and “a shotgun search” for any potential health issue that may hurt the position of the Saints and Pelicans owner. Wittmann also said their efforts to sue Benson were improper given that his client has never ceded a controlling share of his businesses to anyone.
“He’s entitled to change his mind,” Wittmann said. “And he doesn’t need to explain why.”
Wittmann also argued that Louisiana law had a clear hierarchy about who would make decisions on behalf of people who are incapable of doing so for themselves. In Benson’s case, sitting atop that hierarchy would be Saints and Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha and Gayle. That’s because Benson gave Lauscha and Gayle — his wife — medical and business power of attorney in January.
Daughter Renee would be under Lauscha and Gayle for those reasons under normal circumstances, but she would be disqualified because she is an adverse party in a lawsuit against Benson, Wittmann said in court.
Smith countered that Benson’s actions should not strike anyone as reasonable or deliberate. He detailed how Benson, Renee, Rita and Ryan had all coped with various tragedies together. Among them were the deaths of Tom Benson’s first two wives as well as two of Renee’s siblings. Benson and his relatives had all worked together for years, and the deterioration of their relationship as well as their dismissal as employees coincided with the patriarch’s having more frequent memory and physical problems, Smith argued.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Smith said he was “delighted” with Reese’s decision. He had argued that medical exams were proper in the kind of proceeding involving Benson.
Tuesday’s hearing followed a Texas judge’s order that ex-San Antonio mayor Phil Hardberger and local attorney Art Bayern jointly take over the decision-making of a trust set up to benefit Renee and her children for at least the time being. Benson had been the steward of the trust, and the order 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 attempted to introduce Rickhoff’s order as evidence that there was valid concern about Benson’s ability to tend to his business matters, but Reese did not allow that, saying it was not relevant to the issues being argued in New Orleans.
No one from the Benson family attended Tuesday’s hearing.