NEW ORLEANS — Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson must undergo a psychiatric examination, a judge ruled Tuesday as Benson's spurned daughter and her children fought to have the 87-year-old billionaire declared incapable of handling his affairs.
Civil District Judge Kern Reese ruled in a lawsuit filed by Benson's daughter, Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, that the examination must be complete by March 13. Each side in the case will choose one expert and the two sides will agree upon a third.
The lawsuit raises questions about Benson's mental and physical health and alleges that Gayle Benson, whom he married 10 years ago after the death of his second wife, has "systematically isolated" him from family, friends and advisers.
"We're disappointed," Benson attorney Phil Wittmann told reporters after the hearing. He had argued in court that that the efforts of Benson's child and her offspring were "the very embodiment of a fishing expedition" by relatives who were unhappy with competent and reasoned decisions by Benson.
"Your honor, Tom Benson changed his mind, and he had every right to do so," Wittmann argued.
Neither Benson nor his estranged relatives attended Tuesday's hearing. Randy Smith, lawyer for Renee Benson and her children, said it was "telling" that Benson has not attended court proceedings and has fought a court-ordered expert's examination.
"We just want an independent evaluation," Smith said outside the courthouse. "That's what my clients want because they're very concerned about the health of their father and grandfather."
The case marks the second time in a year that an NBA owner's mental capacity has been publicly questioned. After former Clippers owner Donald Sterling's disparaging remarks about blacks became public last year, his wife had him removed from the family trust that owned the team, which was later sold, because of questions about his mental competence.
Tom Benson has owned the Saints since 1985 and bought his NBA team in 2012, changing the name from Hornets to Pelicans in 2013. Rita LeBlanc, 38, has worked for the Saints in various roles since 2001, rising during that time to the level of part owner and executive. But weeks ago she was fired from the clubs. Her mother and brother, who also had been listed as part owners, were likewise removed from executive roles with the clubs.
Documents filed in the case indicated that the elder Benson broke off contact with them in late December.
Reese's ruling came a day after a Texas judge in a parallel case appointed two receivers to oversee a trust Benson established in that state for his daughter and her family. That order came over the objection of Tom Benson's Texas lawyers.
The Texas case involves control of assets in the San Antonio area, which include auto dealerships, a bank and ranch property. It does not involve the pro teams in Louisiana, but is part of the dispute that has come to attention the past month.
Smith referenced Texas Judge Tom Rickhoff's ruling in his arguments to Reese. "Judge Rickhoff, after hearing two days of evidence, expressed serious concern about the vulnerability of Tom Benson," Smith said, before being pointedly told by Reese that the trust issue was a separate matter.
Smith had asked Reese to appoint Dr. Ted Bloch III, a psychiatrist, to examine Benson. Reese said Bloch and an expert chosen by Benson's lawyers (they did not make their choice known Tuesday) plus a third expert agreed upon by both sides must examine Benson by March 13.
The family feud has generated buzz on social media and on the street in New Orleans.
"I think it's a shame that this family, this family business and its issues has to play out in the public," Charles Stiebing of New Orleans, a Saints fan clad in black and gold athletic gear, said as he ran laps around the Superdome last week. "It's very sad that all this would ever come out."