Tom Benson family feud: Estranged heirs appeal competency decision (TX/LA)

Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson’s estranged heirs have appealed a judge’s decision finding the 87-year-old mentally fit to manage his empire, arguing Benson should have testified in his competency trial.

A lawyer for the billionaire’s daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc said in a statement Wednesday (June 24) that Tom Benson’s refusal to take the witness stand “further evidences Tom Benson’s diminished capacity and serves to suppress the truth.”

Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese last week found Benson mentally competent after an eight-day trial that included testimony from his estranged heirs, his wife, three psychiatrists and a Saints executive, among others. Reese closed the trial to the public and has sealed the case.

Lawyers for Renee, Rita and Ryan filed their challenge Wednesday (June 18) with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.

The would-be heirs filed their original lawsuit in January seeking to have Benson declared incompetent, arguing he is in declining mental health and being unduly influenced by his wife, Gayle, and an inner circle of team executives. Earlier in the month, Tom Benson announced he was cutting ties with his would-be heirs and plans to leave full ownership of the teams to his wife.

While Benson didn’t testify at the competency trial, Reese said in his ruling he had interviewed Benson at Saints headquarters in April. Lawyers for Benson and the heirs were present but weren’t allowed to ask questions.

Randy Smith, attorney for the estranged heirs, said at trial Reese heard testimony about ”alleged statements attributed to Tom Benson” from Saints and Pelicans executive Dennis Lauscha, Gayle Benson and one of Benson’s lawyers – even though Benson himself wasn’t allowed to be questioned on the stand.

In his statement, Smith said Reese denied multiple requests to question Benson and a request that the judge apply a so-called “adverse presumption” — which means the judge would assume Benson’s testimony would damage his own case, given his decision not to testify.

Tom Benson’s attorney, Phil Wittmann, said Benson didn’t testify because he was not obligated to testify. Wittmann said the burden was on Renee, Rita and Ryan to prove their claims with “clear and convincing evidence,” but their proof failed in court.

“They didn’t even come close,” Wittmann said.

Smith said the heirs have “heard with their own ears and seen with their own eyes Tom Benson’s mental decline,” and mental impairment that the judge acknowledged in his ruling “will only continue to worsen.”

Three psychiatrists who evaluated Benson testified in the trial. Two of the three doctors —  John Thompson and Kenneth Sakauye — testified Benson has “sustained a mild cognitive impairment” that has affected his short-term memory “but does not rob him of his own volition and ability to make reasoned decisions,” Reese’s ruling says.

A third psychiatrist, Dr. Ted Bloch, found that Benson’s impairment “was moderate to severe, thereby warranting full interdiction,” according to the ruling.

“Indeed, without the essential building block of memory that the court references, decisions are susceptible to being made without factual basis or upon false information,” Smith said.

Smith said the judge relied on “only select portions of the testimony, including certain opinions of physicians who employed insufficient methodology and applied improper standards.”

Smith’s statement continues:

“Renee, Rita and Ryan love their father and grandfather and hope the courts will eventually appoint a curator and undercurator to grant Tom Benson the protection he needs. Although understanding that as long as the record is sealed their actions may not make sense to some, they feel compelled to bring the strong evidence presented at trial of a significant and ongoing infirmity to the appellate court for review.

“In years past, Tom Benson observed contemporaries in similar states of mental decline and urged his family to act for him if he ever found himself in such a vulnerable state. We reiterate that this case is driven by Renee, Rita and Ryan’s love and concern for Tom Benson, the Benson businesses, the Saints, the Pelicans, the State of Louisiana, and the people of the City of New Orleans.”


Tom Benson family feud: Estranged heirs appeal competency decision
Katherine Sayre
June 24, 2015
The Times-Picayune

Additional coverage:

Here’s the 1 big complaint Tom Benson’s relatives have in their new court appeal
Ramon Antonio Vargas
June 26, 2015
The New Orleans Advocate

Tom Benson’s daughter and grandchildren are appealing last week’s ruling that found the Saints and Pelicans owner is mentally competent to make his own business decisions.

Filed Wednesday, the appeal from daughter Renee Benson and her children, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc, says Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese should not have denied them the chance to question Tom Benson before and during his mental competency trial this month.

“Although we have the utmost respect for the court, the refusal of Tom Benson’s counsel to allow Tom Benson to take the witness stand further evidences Tom Benson’s diminished capacity and serves to suppress the truth,” Randy Smith, the lead lawyer for Renee, Rita and Ryan, said in a statement.

Smith said his clients would further argue to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal that Reese relied “upon only select portions of the testimony” heard during the closed-door trial. Without mentioning names, Smith also said physicians who participated in the trial rendered opinions that “employed insufficient methodology and applied improper standards.”

Benson’s lead lawyer, Phillip Wittmann, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The effort to get Reese’s ruling overturned in the appellate court is no surprise. While experts say the standard to get someone declared mentally incompetent is high, Reese’s judgment was a serious blow to Benson’s relatives, who don’t have many options left to get back into the family businesses from which they were ousted several months ago.

In December and January, Benson fired his daughter and her children as employees in his billion-dollar business empire. He also announced that he no longer wanted them to inherit the various businesses he owns in Louisiana and Texas when he dies, which had once been the plan.

The twice-widowed Benson alleged that Rita, Renee and Ryan had proved to be professionally incompetent and that they had treated his third wife, Gayle, rudely. Gayle Benson is now in line to assume control of her husband’s assets upon his death.

Renee, Rita and Ryan fired back by filing a lawsuit alleging that the 87-year-old Benson was too mentally enfeebled to make such drastic decisions for himself. The relatives also alleged that Gayle Benson had manipulated her husband and exerted undue influence on him before he effectively cut his other relatives out of his life.

While Reese never subjected Benson to questioning by his jilted relatives’ lawyers, the judge met with the Saints and Pelicans owner in April. Reese in his ruling said Benson showed he was mentally competent in that session and that evidence heard during the subsequent trial demonstrated the same thing.

The judge reached that conclusion despite conceding that Benson suffers from short-term memory loss, as is common in octogenarians.

At the trial, there was testimony from a dozen witnesses, including three psychiatrists who evaluated Benson. Dr. John Thompson and Dr. Kenneth Sakauye concluded that Benson could make his own decisions and was not susceptible to undue influence, Reese said in his ruling.

A third psychiatrist, Dr. Ted Bloch III, said Benson had a “moderate to severe” cognitive impairment and urged the judge to strip him of the power to control his businesses.

Bloch was chosen for the proceedings by Renee, Rita and Ryan. Benson’s side selected Thompson. Thompson and Bloch then picked Sakauye.

Throughout, Smith has maintained that his clients are motivated by both love for Benson and concern for employees and supporters of his sports teams and other businesses.

“In years past,” Smith said, “Tom Benson observed contemporaries in similar states of mental decline and urged his family to act for him if he ever found himself in such a vulnerable state.”

Other disputes related to the family rift are still pending in New Orleans federal court and in Texas.