After more than a year of legal wrangling over nonvoting shares in his sports teams and various other business assets, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson appears to have reached a settlement agreement with the officials overseeing trust funds benefiting his estranged daughter and grandchildren, wrapping up the last unresolved piece of litigation in a feud that has pitted Benson against members of his family for the past 18 months.
The Saints released a statement Friday announcing that Benson and the trust fund officials had struck a deal.
Although the case at the center of Friday’s agreement involved stock in the Saints and Pelicans, Benson was never at risk of losing control of his sports franchises. The controlling stock in the two franchises is in Benson’s sole possession, and he never put any of it in the trust funds involved in the suit.
If the settlement is finalized, Benson will be free to leave complete control of the teams and his other businesses to his wife, Gayle. His announcement a year and a half ago that he intended to do that touched off the legal battle with his other relatives.
Although the latest settlement’s terms will remain confidential, the Saints said both the NFL and the NBA had been informed of the agreement, and Benson’s various businesses would continue to operate “as usual.”
The agreement avoids a trial — scheduled to start Monday — on a lawsuit in which Benson was seeking to recover nonvoting shares in both the Saints and Pelicans as well as other business assets from the trust funds.
There has been protracted disagreement over whether he was offering other assets of equivalent value in return, as he was legally required to do, prompting him to sue the trustees in New Orleans’ federal court in early 2015.
Those trustees — attorneys Robert Rosenthal and Mary Rowe — said in a statement Friday that they were pleased the dispute was close “to an amicable resolution” following the settlement agreement, which still must receive final approval from U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo. The parties are supposed to report to her on July 20.
“As trustees, our objectives all along have been to protect the integrity of the trusts,” Rosenthal and Rowe said.
The case has its roots in a family rift that became public in January 2015, when Benson, now 88, revealed that he wanted to leave control of his billion-dollar business empire to his third wife, Gayle, instead of his daughter and her children, with whom he said he was no longer on speaking terms.
But Benson previously had put nonvoting shares in the Saints and Pelicans, among various other business assets, into a group of trust funds set up for Renee Benson — his daughter from a previous marriage — and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, a move that was meant to shield them from having to pay estate taxes.
He wanted to reclaim the business assets at the center of the suit to avoid a situation where his estranged relatives — having purportedly clashed with Gayle — would one day end up as minority partners in the Saints and his other businesses, according to court records.
On Friday, Benson’s lead attorney, Phil Wittmann, said the billionaire was “happy” with the settlement agreement and was moving forward with plans to leave control of all his businesses to Gayle.
Benson argued that he had provided the necessary equivalent value to reclaim the assets in the trusts by canceling tens of millions of dollars’ worth of debt and handing over roughly a half-billion dollars’ worth of promissory notes due in about 25 years. The officials overseeing the trusts contested that claim.
Earlier this month, in somewhat of a split ruling, Milazzo denied a request to rule in the trustees’ favor without listening to witness testimony and oral arguments.
At the same time, Milazzo rejected a request from Benson’s attorneys to seal numerous pieces of evidence that could have been used at the trial. Benson contended that allowing his personal and professional financial information to be aired in public could harm his business dealings, along with those of his sports teams and the leagues to which they belong.
The trustees argued that granting such a request would force Milazzo to bar the public from the courtroom for large portions of the trial, violating citizens’ right to access court proceedings.
Had the case gone to trial, many of the witnesses would have been experts offering technical testimony supporting and opposing the argument that Benson was proposing a swap of equivalent value. But it was expected that Benson, as the plaintiff in the case, also would have to testify in open court, something he has not done in other proceedings related to the family feud.
After Benson announced he was changing his succession plans and barring his daughter and grandchildren from any role in his life and his businesses, they challenged his mental fitness to make such decisions. But a New Orleans Civil District Court judge found Benson was mentally competent to handle his own affairs after a closed-door trial in June 2015, and two higher courts have since left that ruling in place.
On another front of the legal battle, Benson and his daughter agreed that she would take over control of a family trust fund established in Texas prior to his purchase of the Saints and Pelicans. That case also was settled shortly before it was due to go to trial this year. Benson probably would have had to testify in that trial as well.
Both sides had incentive to settle the federal lawsuit before a trial. A lengthy, expensive appeals process likely would have followed a decision from Milazzo, no matter which side it favored.
Update, July 20, 2016: Milazzo had asked the parties in the case to report to her on July 20, but that date was postponed until Aug. 19 to give each side more time to finalize the details of the settlement agreement struck in June.