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'Technicality' over corporate status could tank plaintiff's case in Lee statue dispute

A foundation whose inability to keep its corporate papers up to date might learn a hard lesson if the judge hearing the so-called Charlottesville statue case decides the snafu deprives the group of the right to sue over its failed bid for the Robert E. Lee statue.

“It’s a technicality, but it’s an important technicality,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told The Daily Progress.

Tobias declined to predict which way retired Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. would rule, but Peatross heard three hours of testimony and arguments Tuesday in Albemarle Circuit Court.

At issue was the status of the Ratcliffe Foundation of Tazewell County, one of two groups waging a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville over the fate of Lee statue. That group and the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation of Louisa County have argued that the city’s December 2021 decision to give the bronze equestrian statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center was contrary to both local policy and Virginia’s Public Procurement Act.

The statue was removed from its downtown location on July 10, 2021, after several years of debate about the appropriateness of a monument memorializing the leader of the army that rebelled against the U.S. Those arguments led to protests by Lee lovers, Confederate backers, white nationalists and, ultimately, neo-Nazis protesting in the city. Those protests culminated a month later in a planned rally that turned into riots. During the chaos, an Ohio man rammed his car into counterprotesters, killing an anti-racist activist named Heather Heyer.

In a small upstairs room in Albemarle County Circuit Court, attorney Ralph Main argued his motion that a new version of the Ratcliffe Foundation should be allowed to enter the lawsuit as a plaintiff.

“They filed tax returns, they made charitable contributions, they conducted business,” Main argued. “They still continued to function as a community of interest.”

“It’s the same in everything,” continued Main. “Except now it’s a corporation instead of an unincorporated entity.”

Main’s sole witness, Tazewell County lawyer and Ratcliffe Foundation Board Member Fred W. Harman conceded that he allowed the company to lose its state corporate status by failing to file an annual report from 2015 to 2021.

“I was the registered agent,” Harman testified. “That’s on me 100%; I take full responsibility.”

That failure meant that at the time the Ratcliffe Foundation sued the city, it had not been a recognized Virginia corporation for nearly seven years, Harman conceded.

“We thought we were a corporation,” Harman testified. “We were operating under that assumption.”

For Christopher Tate, the lawyer for the Jefferson School — which is a party but no longer a defendant in the case — that corporate status was crucial.

“A dissolved corporation is no corporation at all,” argued Tate. “There is no entity.”

Robinson J. Hubbard, a lawyer in the office of the city attorney, agreed.

“This is a naked attempt to amend the pleadings,” argued Hubbard.

The Ratcliffe Foundation was founded by the late Arthur “Smiley” Ratliff, who gave his foundation a slightly different ancestral name. With 13,000 acres, the late Ratliff, who died in 2007, may have been largest landholder east of the Mississippi River. His foundation has indicated that it wanted to put the Lee statue in a proposed statue garden at Ellenbrook, a historic mansion the Russell County community of Rosedale and the ancestral home of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s family.

Meanwhile, Swords into Plowshares is the name given to a plan outlined by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center which wants to melt the Lee statue into ingots that would then be fashioned into a new work of community art.

Peatross allowed rebuttals and then further rebuttals on both sides. A decision to knock a plaintiff out of contention would put additional pressure on the surviving plaintiff to remain error-free.

“You’ve given me reading to do,” Peatross said at the end of the three-hour hearing on Tuesday. “So I’m not going to give you a decision today.”

The hearing was held on day that had been expected to be the trial date, but the case was continued for a third time. The judge did not provide a timeline for his decision or announce a new trial date.


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