The state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal on Wednesday upheld a New Orleans judge’s ruling that Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson was mentally competent when he cut his daughter and grandchildren out of his succession plans last year.
Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, wanted Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese’s decision overturned, saying their attorneys never got the opportunity to question the 88-year-old family patriarch before the judge ruled.
But an appellate panel consisting of Judges Dennis Bagneris, Terri Love and Max Tobias denied the request.
The panel’s 25-page decision said Reese “did not err by ruling that Mr. Benson had a right not to testify.”
Randy Smith, the lead attorney for Benson’s estranged relatives, said his clients were considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
That would be the last venue to challenge Benson’s plans to eventually leave control of his business empire to his third wife, Gayle Benson, unless his relatives make a separate bid on constitutional grounds in the federal courts.
Benson issued a statement saying he hoped the circuit court’s ruling would end the “very sad and trying” mental competency case against him.
In January 2015, the twice-widowed Benson announced that Gayle would inherit his businesses. Renee, Rita and Ryan — whom he had named as his heirs years earlier — countered with a lawsuit alleging that Benson was in declining mental and physical health and had been manipulated into making that decision by Gayle and other interlopers.
Benson said his decisions were his alone and in the best interest of his businesses.
During an eight-day bench trial in June held in a courtroom sealed off to the public, Reese heard from three physicians who examined Benson.
A neutral physician and one of Benson’s choosing each said the Saints owner should not be barred from handling his own affairs, despite suffering from a “mild cognitive impairment.” A third physician, chosen by Benson’s relatives, said the billionaire was “unable to consistently make reasoned decisions about his person and ... property,” Wednesday’s ruling said.
Benson didn’t take the witness stand, though he spoke to Reese during a private meeting at Saints and Pelicans headquarters in Metairie.
Reese ultimately sided with Benson at the end of a trial that Wednesday’s ruling said was rife with “conflicting evidence.”
Bagneris, Love and Tobias heard oral arguments last month in a courtroom that again was sealed off to the public.
Smith said his clients were disappointed with the appellate court’s decision.
“The court held that a person whose mental capacity is questioned need not be called to the stand, a ruling which we believe allows for those manipulating someone in a weakened state to conceal the truth,” Smith said.
He also noted that Tobias — in an accompanying opinion — mentioned that he and the other panel members might have reached a different decision than Reese did at the trial level, given the conflicting evidence. But Tobias said it was correct to uphold the decision from Reese, who the panel said had wide discretion in a case of this nature.
Benson’s statement said, “This continues to be a very sad and trying time for me and my wife Gayle. ... I am hopeful one day soon that all their ungratefulness will end, and I can continue to enjoy my work with the Saints and Pelicans without further interference.”
The appellate panel affirmed Reese’s decision to deny a request from Benson to award his side attorneys’ fees in the case.
Benson’s relatives late last week asked the state Supreme Court to allow part of the case record to be unsealed. There has been no decision on that request.
Another case related to the Benson family feud is pending in New Orleans’ federal court. In that case, Benson has asked a judge to let him swap out certain business assets — including nonvoting shares in the Saints and Pelicans — from a group of trusts that benefit Renee, Rita and Ryan, in exchange for other assets Benson claims are of equal value.
In yet another case, Renee sued in Texas for control of a trust fund for which her father had been trustee. A recently approved settlement gave Renee oversight of the trust, which was created by her mother, the late Shirley Benson, Benson’s first wife. Shares in a family-owned bank, car dealerships and real estate were involved in that case, but no stock in the Saints or Pelicans.