A lawsuit filed by Renee Benson to strip her father of power over a trust set up for her benefit has been ordered back to state court after a federal judge in Texas ruled that Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson missed the deadline to petition the federal court to take over the case.
In his ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge David Ezra said the law required the Louisiana billionaire to file his notice of removal by March 2. Benson did not file it until March 18.
The case now moves back to state probate court in San Antonio.
Tom Benson also has a pending state appeal related to his daughter’s lawsuit that was on hold until Ezra issued a decision.
Defendants who believe their cases involve questions better resolved by a federal judge, sometimes because they involve parties from different states, can automatically move their cases to federal court. Federal judges then decide if, in fact, they have jurisdiction in the matter. Often, these cases are sent back to state court because of a technicality, as in the Benson case.
After Benson several months ago told his daughter and her children that he no longer wanted them involved with his businesses in Louisiana and Texas, Renee Benson sued in San Antonio state court to have her father removed as the overseer of a trust set up for her.
Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff then appointed former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger and probate lawyer Art Bayern to temporarily oversee the trust. That decision effectively removed the 87-year-old Benson as trustee of the trust, which was created by his first wife, Shirley, who was Renee’s mother and died in 1980.
Benson appealed Rickhoff’s decision. Then, after Hardberger and Bayern asked Rickhoff to decide the ownership of assets in various Benson family trusts, Benson filed a request to move Renee’s lawsuit to the federal court system. Benson alleged that Hardberger and Bayern had overstepped their role, which included taking an inventory of the billionaire’s assets.
Hardberger and Bayern dropped their request to Rickhoff a week later, but Benson pressed his case to have the rest of the case play out in federal court. Benson contended that the law gave him only until March 2 to file his notice of removal was outdated.
A lawyer for Renee, Bennett Stahl, said Ezra’s ruling allows the Texas lawsuit’s parties to proceed toward a trial. At that trial, Renee would seek to have her father permanently removed as overseer of the trust created for her.
Phillip Wittmann, an attorney for Benson, said his client is not able to appeal Ezra’s ruling. But Benson will pursue his appeal of Rickhoff’s decision in Texas’ 4th Court of Appeals, and a separate ruling in that matter is expected “fairly soon,” Wittmann said.
The twice-widowed Benson in January revealed that he had decided his third wife, Gayle Benson, will assume control over the Saints, Pelicans and his other businesses when he dies. That did not sit well with Renee or her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, who had been groomed for years as their family patriarch’s primary heirs.
In reaction to being cut off, Renee filed the trust lawsuit in Texas, and she and her children also asked the Civil District Court in New Orleans to have Benson declared mentally incompetent to make his own business decisions.
The mental competence lawsuit against Benson began June 1. It will resume Wednesday.
A separate aspect of the Benson family feud remains pending in New Orleans’ federal court. In that case, Benson is the plaintiff, and the defendants are a pair of lawyers overseeing trusts that benefit Rita, Renee and Ryan and contain noncontrolling shares of the Saints and Pelicans as well as other assets. The trust created by Shirley Benson does not contain any shares in the teams.