There will be a full trial in the federal lawsuit Tom Benson filed last year in an effort to take back shares in the Saints and Pelicans that he had placed in trust funds for his now estranged relatives, a judge has ruled.
In a decision made public Friday, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo denied a request from Benson’s opponents in the case to rule in their favor without listening to witness testimony and oral arguments, which are scheduled to start June 20 and last about five days.
Milazzo also turned down a request from Benson’s attorneys to seal certain pieces of evidence that could be used at the trial. Benson argued that allowing personal and professional financial records to be made public could harm his business dealings, along with those of his teams and the sports leagues to which they belong.
Benson’s opponents — officials overseeing the trust funds in question — countered that granting such a request would force Milazzo to bar the public from entering the courtroom for significant portions of the trial. That would violate the public’s constitutional right of access to court proceedings, they argued.
Benson’s attorneys will have the opportunity to again ask that certain exhibits be sealed in the future, Milazzo said.
The case has its roots in a family dispute that became public early last year, when Benson, now 88, revealed that he wanted to leave control of his billion-dollar business empire to his wife Gayle, instead of his daughter and her children, with whom he said he had fallen out.
But Benson by then already had put nonvoting shares in the Saints and Pelicans, among other assets, into various trust funds benefiting Renee Benson — his daughter from a previous marriage — and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc. Benson wants to take those shares back to prevent Renee, Rita and Ryan from ending up as his wife’s minority shareholding partners, according to court records.
To accomplish that, Benson must replace those shares in the trust funds with other assets of equal value. He claims he has done that by canceling tens of millions of dollars worth of debt and handing over almost a half-billion dollars’ worth of promissory notes due in about 25 years.
However, those overseeing the trust funds in question have argued that Benson has not provided equal value, leading to the lawsuit before Milazzo.
The ruling published Friday follows assertions by the defendants that Benson had not received needed permission from the NFL and the NBA to carry out the swap he was seeking. They also contended that Benson had not adequately secured his promissory notes, and they asked Milazzo to dismiss the case before the trial for those reasons.
Benson’s attorneys countered that their client had the right under the trusts’ bylaws to swap assets out for others of equal value without any kind of delay.
They also said prior transactions that put assets into the trusts at the center of the case were completed without approval from either league or any objection from the officials overseeing the funds.
Milazzo’s refusal to toss Benson’s case is not a surprise. She had issued a separate ruling last month finding that Benson was within his rights to reclaim assets from the trust funds, although she did say his opponents in the case had the right to dispute whether equal value was being offered.
The names of Benson, Renee and Rita all appear on a list of potential witnesses for the trial that will occur barring an 11th-hour settlement.
The family feud also has seen Benson’s relatives challenge his mental fitness to change his succession plans. But a New Orleans civil court judge found Benson was mentally competent to handle his own affairs after a closed-door trial, and two higher courts have left that ruling in place.
In a related legal battle, Benson and Renee agreed that she would take over control of a family trust fund established in Texas before he purchased New Orleans’ NFL and NBA teams.