Judge rules lawsuit over Tom Benson's trusts for estranged relatives will be heard in New Orleans _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tom Benson arrives at civil district court in New Orleans with lawyer Phillip Wittmann Monday, June 1, 2015.

Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson won another court victory Thursday when a federal judge presiding over a case to determine whether Benson can remove several assets — including nonvoting ownership shares in the Saints and Pelicans sports franchises — from trusts he set up for his estranged relatives ruled that the case should remain in New Orleans.

The defendant in the case, trustee Robert Rosenthal, had filed a motion asking that matter be moved to a Texas court closer to where he lives.

In her order, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo said she found Rosenthal has “sufficient minimum contacts” to give the local court jurisdiction and that travel to New Orleans would not “unduly burden” him.

The ruling allows Benson’s lawsuit against Rosenthal to proceed in New Orleans. The billionaire filed the suit against the San Antonio lawyer in March.

Rosenthal oversees several trusts Benson set up for his daughter and grandchildren before the octogenarian decided to cut them out of his business empire.

Rosenthal has blocked a swap of assets proposed by Benson, questioning whether the assets Benson offered in exchange are equal in value to the trusts’ current contents. Benson’s suit asks the judge to force Rosenthal to sign off on the trade.

Benson created the trusts in April 2009 and December 2012 for his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. His lawsuit says he has been the sole contributor to the trusts.

The trusts created in 2009 contain 100 percent of the shares in Benson’s Zelia family of businesses, which owns Benson Tower and Champions Square, a parking lot at South Claiborne Avenue and Poydras Street, property in Jefferson Parish and businesses in Texas.

The 2012 trusts include nonvoting shares in Benson Football LLC and Benson Basketball LLC, which own the Saints and Pelicans professional sports teams, plus full ownership of New Orleans TV station WVUE.

Two other trusts, which also contain shares in the Saints and Pelicans parent companies, also are part of the lawsuit.

Benson tried to remove many of the assets, including the Saints and Pelicans shares, from the trusts in January in exchange for other items that he said were of equal value, a total of $556 million.

The move was intended to give Benson full ownership of the sports teams and other properties so he ultimately can leave his estate to his wife, Gayle Benson, instead of his daughter and grandchildren, as he had earlier planned.

Benson and his estranged relatives have been locked in a pitched battle about the future of his business empire since he announced in January that he was cutting them out of his businesses and his life. The relatives responded by asking a court to declare Benson mentally incapable of making such a decision, but Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ruled against them last month.

The trust dispute, though less sensational, also has serious implications for the future of Benson’s fortune.

Rosenthal, whom Benson had selected to oversee the trusts, has a fiduciary responsibility to the trusts’ beneficiaries, Renee Benson and her children.

In his lawsuit, however, Benson argued that he maintained the right to make the assets switch “without the approval or consent of any person in a fiduciary capacity.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, Rosenthal has resigned as trustee of the trusts containing shares of the sports teams. He was succeeded by Mary R. Rowe.

Rowe, who also lives in San Antonio, also has challenged the New Orleans court’s jurisdiction over her.