New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed last year against the Edward Wisner Donation, a lucrative century-old land trust controlled in part by the city of New Orleans.
Cantrell, who is also asking to be added to the case as a named defendant, claims that the plaintiffs — a group of law firms that worked for the trust — filed the complaint without proper legal authority and breached their ethical duties by suing a former client.
The firms filed suit in April last year against the Wisner Donation — which owns tens of thousands of acres of donated land along the Louisiana coast — seeking to resolve a dispute over their legal fees from representing the Donation in the Deepwater Horizon litigation. The attorneys also asked the court to invalidate an agreement that Cantrell signed with the Wisner Donation’s beneficiaries in March 2020.
The Wisner land trust was established in 1914 when philanthropist Edward Wisner donated the land and named four beneficiaries for any income it produced: Tulane University, the Salvation Army Charity hospital, now part of LSU, and the city of New Orleans. The mayor of New Orleans was named as trustee.
Later, as part of a legal settlement, a group of private individuals — including Wisner’s family and the family of the attorneys who worked for Wisner’s widow, Mary Wisner — were added as a fifth beneficiary group.
Decades after the Wisner Donation was first established, Port Fourchon — which serves more than 90 percent of deepwater oil production in the Gulf of Mexico — was built on the land, leasing it from the trust. The trust was supposed to terminate in 2014, its 100th anniversary, which would have reverted the land and the millions of dollars in rental income it produces to the city alone.
But the March 2020 agreement Cantrell signed extended the trust, and its shared control, in perpetuity. It’s not clear why Cantrell approved the extension. She has either declined or failed to respond to repeated requests for comment from The Lens over the past year, including for this story.
An attorney for the plaintiffs also declined comment for this story.
The plaintiff law firms — Herman, Herman & Katz, L.L.C., Domengeaux, Wright, Roy & Edwards, L.L.C., Leger & Shaw, L.L.C., Fayard & Honeycutt, A.P.C., and Fred Herman P.L.C. — all previously represented the Wisner Donation in post-Deepwater Horizon spill litigation against BP, Transocean and Halliburton.
In their complaint, they argued that the trust owes them about $850,000 in legal fees from that work. As part of the suit, they also asked an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge to nullify the March 2020 trust extension agreement.
After a series of legal filings between late April and July, the lawsuit appeared to be stalled for months. But late last month, Cantrell petitioned to intervene in the case as a defendant. She is represented by City Attorney Donesia Turner, a group of lawyers from the Sher, Garner, Cahill, Richter, Klein & Hilbert firm and lawyer and political consultant Ike Spears.
Cantrell is also asking a judge to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims on procedural grounds. She argues that under Louisiana law, she should have been named as a defendant in the case by virtue of her role as trustee for the Wisner Donation and that the law firms don’t have legal standing to ask a court to nullify the 2020 extension because they are neither trustees nor a trust beneficiary.
She also argues that the lawyers breached their duty of loyalty to their former client, the trust, by bringing the lawsuit in the first place, because the lawsuit they filed used information about the trust against it without the trust’s consent. Louisiana law prohibits the use of ”information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the former client.” However, there are exceptions to this rule when a fee dispute arises.
The Orleans Parish Civil District Court has not yet ruled on whether Cantrell is permitted to intervene in the ongoing litigation, but a hearing will likely take place in the next few months.