The man whose lawsuit has blocked redevelopment of the old World Trade Center building in New Orleans was dealt another setback Wednesday when an appellate court ruled against him.
The state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld a lower court's decision in November to throw out the case.
Nonetheless, Stuart “Neil” Fisher, owner of Two Canal Street Investors Inc., vowed to take his legal challenge to the state’s highest court.
Fisher said he also plans to sue in federal court in Baton Rouge. Going that route, he said, “I feel that I can get a straight, even distribution of justice, unlike what has happened in New Orleans."
A continuing legal fight, no matter how slim its chance of success, could once again delay plans to turn the 33-story former office tower at the foot of Canal Street into a Four Seasons Hotel and condominiums.
The legal fight began in April 2015 when Fisher sued the city after Two Canal bid on and lost the chance to redevelop the city-owned tower. Two Canal proposed to turn it into a Hotel Alessandra and said the city was obligated by state law to choose its proposal because it offered the city the most money in lease payments over time.
But the city instead tapped the development team of Carpenter and Co. and Woodward Design + Build, who proposed to create the Four Seasons. City officials said they were exempt from the state law Two Canal cited.
Carpenter and Woodward quickly went on the offense, casting Fisher as a con man who had bought Two Canal, a company with no assets, for $10 simply to be able to file a suit.
Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase, after more than a year of presiding over the often bizarre case, agreed with Carpenter and Woodward on that point in November. She also dismissed Two Canal’s case because no one showed up to represent the firm at a trial and because Fisher did not appear for a separate court deposition.
Fisher’s former lawyers, the Davillier Law Group, abandoned him in October. He has said he didn’t show up for his Nov. 21 trial because he had not yet hired another lawyer and because his corporation legally could not represent itself.
His new attorneys, Scott, Vicknair, Hair & Checki LLC, told a five-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in January that Chase should not have let the Davillier group quit so close to Fisher’s trial date. They said that was an abuse of Chase’s discretion and a violation of Two Canal’s due process rights.
Chase has said the Davillier lawyers wanted out because Fisher didn’t follow their recommendations.
Two Canal’s rights also were violated when Chase set a speedy timeline for resolution of the case, the firm’s attorneys said, adding that Two Canal’s lack of bank accounts, tax returns or stocks does not make it a fake company.
All five judges disagreed with that logic Wednesday.
Two Canal knew in advance that its attorneys were looking to quit the case and had enough time to replace them, four of the five judges said.
As for the argument that Chase scheduled the trial too quickly, Two Canal should have brought that point up at the time, the judges said. And even if it had done so, Chase’s timeline for hearing the case was in line with a state law that requires such lawsuits to move along quickly, they said.
What’s more, Two Canal “is a corporation in name only,” the panel wrote.
Judge Rosemary Ledet, in a separate opinion, agreed that Two Canal’s case should be tossed out but on the basis that no attorneys for it showed up for the trial and because of Fisher’s repeated no-shows and case delays.
A spokesman for Carpenter and Woodward said the ruling "validates our contention that the plaintiff has no legitimate legal case and that this transformational project needs to move forward.”
But the developers may find themselves facing more delays if the Louisiana Supreme Court chooses to hear Fisher’s case. Even if it doesn’t, Fisher has a backup.
He will complain in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge that Act 516 of the 2016 Legislature, the law that requires cases such as Two Canal’s to move quickly through the courts, violated Two Canal’s due process rights.
Carpenter and Woodward have said the litigation has stopped them from getting title insurance, meaning the project cannot proceed.
Fisher said Wednesday that he is still open to talks about a settlement, which doesn’t have to come in the form of cash, he added.
Otherwise, he said, “if it doesn’t get resolved, this litigation will be tying us up for at least another year, if not more.”