New Orleans Saints|Owner Found Competent

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Tom Benson, who owns the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, is fit to run the teams, a state judge ruled Thursday.
     Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese ruled Benson competent following an eight-day closed session trial that ended last week.
     In January, after Benson, 87, said the Saints and Pelicans will be taken over when he dies by his third wife, Gayle, Benson’s daughter, Renee LeBlanc, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, filed papers court seeking a declaration Benson is mentally unfit and to put Renee in charge of his estate.
     At the time, Benson had also recently attempted to change irrevocable trusts in the names of Renee, Rita and Ryan, swapping out their interests in the sports teams and Benson’s car dealerships for cash.
     Renee, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc said in their January petition for interdiction they feared that Benson had fallen prey to Gayle’s manipulations.
     Judge Reese’s ruling solves the issue of whether Benson was competent enough to make decisions.
     Reese shared the opinion of two out of three examining doctors that Benson is not just mentally competent but is also making his own decisions without outside manipulation.
     The larger issue remains of whether Benson can legally change the irrevocable trusts he set up years ago for his daughter and grandchildren.
     Benson was examined by three doctors and he and his family appeared in court this month in a trial that was closed to the public.
     “This court has carefully considered all the evidence adduced at the hearing, all the pleadings filed in these proceedings, the testimony of the witnesses, and the arguments of counsel, and finds the defendant, Thomas Milton Benson Jr., is able to make reasoned decisions as to his person and his property and therefore this court WILL NOT order an interdiction of any kind in these proceedings,” Judge Reese said in his ruling (emphasis in original).
     Although Benson did not testify during trial, Judge Reese interviewed Benson during an hour long “Watermeier hearing” in April 2015, Reece’s ruling says.
     During the April interview, Benson “affirmed the actions he took in December and January, unequivocally,” Reese said. “He actually apologized to the court for a somewhat boisterous outburst stating his feelings. The court sat across the desk from the defendant, looked into his eyes, listened carefully to his responses, and concluded the capacity to make reasoned decisions was present. The evidence presented at the hearing corroborated this initial impression.”
     At the hearing, court documents say, two of the three doctors who examined Benson – doctors John Thompson Jr. and Kenneth M. Sakauye – said it was their opinion that although Benson has suffered a mild cognitive impairment that has affected his short term memory, the impairment does not affect his ability to make decisions.
     Thompson and Sakauye said Benson was not vulnerable to undue influence, according to the judge’s ruling.
     Only Dr. Ted Block, the geriatric psychiatrist chosen by Renee, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc to examine Benson concluded Benson is unfit to control his estate.
     Judge Reese’s ruling noted that civil code makes it “abundantly clear” that interdiction is meant only as a “last resort.”
     “The jurisprudence of the State of Louisiana has long held that interdiction is indeed a harsh remedy, even likened to ‘civil death,'” his ruling said.
     “The court has carefully reviewed the evidence and finds that petitioners filed this interdiction proceeding after Tom Benson made the drastic decision to alter his succession plans for ownership of his professional sports teams and allocation of his estate upon his demise. The petitioners deemed this to be illustrative of his inability to make reasoned decisions regarding his person and his property,” the judge found.
     During the closed trial, among others, Takiyah Daniels, the chief nurse of Benson’s home health team from September 2014 to March 2015, was called by Benson’s daughter and granddaughter to testify.
     “Takiyah Daniels, who the court found to be perhaps the most credible fact witness who appeared in this case, testified Tom Benson agonized over distancing himself from his family members, cried about it, read the December 27, 2014, letter three times, and then decided to place his signature on the document. She testified that no one stood over him while he signed it. It was his decision,” the judge wrote.
     It wasn’t immediately clear whether Renee, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc intend to appeal Judge Reese’s decision.
     The administration of separate Benson family trusts remains ongoing in separate courts.
     Benson issued a statement Thursday afternoon, saying he was grateful for the support of the community and of his lawyers and sports teams staff, and calling on the Saints to win another Super Bowl and NBA Championship.
     “Gayle and I wish to thank the entire community for the overwhelming support that we have received during this trying time,” Benson said. “Through it all, our fans and our sponsors showed unwavering support for our Saints and Pelicans.”
     Lawyers for Benson’s three heirs, Renee, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, said their clients are disappointed the judge did not step in and issue an order “to protect their father and grandfather, as well as the teams’ businesses.”

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