Judge Markle dismisses temporary restraining order; King children can vote on an out-of-court settlement

By Maria Saporta

The three living children of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. can meet to resolve their differences out of court, thanks to an order issued by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Todd Markle Tuesday afternoon.

After hearing from attorneys representing both the King Estate and the King Center on Tuesday morning, Judge Markle decided he would not prevent the three siblings from having an opportunity to meet to vote on a possible “global resolution” of their differences.

Martin Luther King III, chairman of the King Estate board, had called for a board meeting of the three siblings to be held on Jan. 7.

But the attorney representing the King Estate — William Hill Jr. — had filed and received an emergency Temporary Restraining Order from Judge Markle to prevent the board from meeting to consider a possible out-of-court settlement or resolution of two separate cases.

The first case is the King Estate versus the King Center over the ability of the nonprofit entity’s license fee and rights to use the image and the name of Civil Rights leader in all its branding. That case is being heard in Judge Markle’s courtroom, and it is scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 26.

The second case involves the King Estate versus Bernice King, the youngest of the three siblings, over the ownership of the Nobel Peace Prize Medal and MLK Jr.’s traveling Bible. That case is being heard by Judge Robert McBurney, and it is scheduled to go to trial no sooner than Feb. 23.

Hill argued that the Estate’s board should not meet because Bernice King would have a conflict of interest because she would not act in the best financial interest of the Estate.

But James Commons, the attorney for the King Center, argued that each of the three siblings are equally conflicted in both cases. Martin III, Bernice, and their brother, Dexter King, all serve as board members of both the King Center and the King Estate.

During Tuesday morning’s hearing to dismiss the TRO, several facts were revealed. The King Estate, led by Dexter – who serves as CEO, had offered a resolution to settle the cases on Christmas Eve, but apparently the other two siblings did not find that proposal to be acceptable.

A “global resolution” – apparently supported by Martin III and Bernice – was presented to the King Estate (but not publicly distributed) earlier this month that would have a new licensee arrangement between the King Center and the King Estate.

Hill said that resolution would be detrimental to the economic interests of the Estate. He also explained that his client was neither Bernice, Martin nor Dexter, but the King Estate. “The Estate speaks to me through the president and CEO, Dexter King,” Hill said.

But Commons said that the King Estate operates as a corporation with corporate by-laws. The entity is owned by shareholders, who are represented by directors. In the case of the King Estate, the three shareholders and the three directors are one and the same — Martin III, Dexter and Bernice. The directors then elect the officers of the corporation.

“The majority rules, and the majority has spoken,” Commons said, referring to the wishes of Martin III and Bernice to seek a “global resolution.”

Again Hill said that a vote to dismiss the litigation would be detrimental to the King Estate and would mean Martin III and Bernice had aligned their interests with the King Center. For that reason, Hill asked Judge Markle to keep the TRO in place.

Commons, however, argued that Martin III and Bernice represented the majority vote of the King Estate, and it was up to them to decide what was in their best interests. Also, if the cases were to go to trial, he said they would inevitably attract negative publicity, which would cause harm to the King Center and possibly the Estate.

The TRO had been limited to the board not being able to vote on an out-of-court settlement.

Commons asked the judge if the TRO would prevent the majority of directors from being able to vote Dexter out as CEO of the King Estate.

Judge Markle said he did not see how he could stop the board from meeting to discuss and conduct other business.

To that, Hill immediately said he was making a supplemental motion to expand the TRO to prevent the board from meeting and voting on a leadership change.

“I’m denying that motion,” Judge Markle said. “I’m comfortable with the Estate being able to meet and being able to conduct other business.”

He said he would make a decision about whether to dissolve the TRO after he had had time to review the arguments in the case.

A few hours later, he issued the following order:

“After hearing from counsel, the Court hereby DISSOLVES the Temporary Restraining Order issued January 7, 2015 and finds the Motion to Intervene to be MOOT,” Judge Markle wrote.

What is not known is when Martin III will call a meeting of the King Estate’s board. If Martin III and Bernice vote to adopt a new “global resolution,” Dexter King could still object. But he may not be able to do so as the official executive representatiing the King Estate because he would be operating without the support of the majority of the directors.

Martin III did not respond to a text on Tuesday evening. A representative for Martin III also was not able to indicate what the next step would be or when it would take place.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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