Dispute over ownership of trendy Warehouse District restaurant Meson 923 results in lawsuit

By Eliza Walker | Sep 26, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – One of the partners behind the now-defunct restaurant Meson 923 has filed suit against her former business partner.

Astrid LaVenia and South Peters LLC filed suit against Jerome S. Fertel in the Orleans Parish Civil District Court on July 29.

LaVenia states that she and the defendant began their business relationship in 2008 when they formed a joint limited liability company, Arthur and Johnson LLC. Renovation was promptly begun on the property at 923 South Peters Street with the intention that it would become a restaurant.

In April 2010, Meson 923 opened its doors. The suit states that it was owned by South Peters LLC, a limited liability company that the plaintiff and the defendant each had a 50 percent membership in. Plaintiff LaVenia was the manager of the restaurant, and ran its day-to-day operations—ranging from purchasing, staffing, and finances to waiting tables and washing dishes. She states that her work-week often exceeded 90 hours.

Meson 923 received widespread recognition for the quality of both its cuisine and atmosphere, according to the suit.

Brett Anderson of the Times-Picayune named Meson 923 one of the Best New Restaurants of the year, and New Orleans food critic Tom Fitzmorris pronounced the restaurant’s opening as “one of the most auspicious in recent years” and noted that it was “a serious, stylish gourmet house,” the suit claims.

It goes on to state that Ian McNulty of Gambit wrote that Meson 923 was a “very impressive new restaurant” and the food was “dazzling good.” The international travel guide Hg2 declared that “Meson 923 has the looks of a supermodel…The kitchen, however, proves that this place is more than a pretty face.” New Orleans Magazine lauded that at Meson 923, “contemporary cool and ambitious cuisine converge in a singular, aesthetically striking package.”

The plaintiff claims that in July 2011, New Orleans Magazine named her as one of its “Top Female Achievers,” and declared that she was the “brains, beauty and heart of Meson 923.”

The plaintiff alleges that initially she drew a salary from the business, but that beginning in April 2011, because of cash flow difficulties, she voluntarily deferred collection of her own salary so as to ensure there were sufficient funds to pay her employees. She alleges that she deferred salary payments in excess of $34,000. She claims that due to the defendant’s failure to honor his commitment to finance the business, she advanced more than $70,000 of her own money to maintain business operations.

In November of 2011, Chef Baruch Rabasa left the restaurant, the suit claims. The plaintiff arranged for Bob Iacovone, a highly decorated chef, to replace Chef Rabasa. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant refused to honor the replacement Chef Rabasa, and in retaliation withheld his consent to necessary services such as phone service and insurance.

The plaintiff alleges that as a result of the defendant’s failure and refusal to fulfill his commitments to the business, she closed the restaurant in December 2011.

She alleges that counsel for the defendant confronted her and made numerous baseless allegations that she had engaged in improprieties, and that the plaintiff demanded that she turn over her keys. She states that the defendant then attempted to run the restaurant himself with his friends as a “hobby,” but continued to operate the business through South Peters LLC, including the use of its liquor license.

The plaintiff alleges that the defendant mismanaged the restaurant, and after a short time gave up, and brought in a third party who ran operations for a short time, before closing the restaurant in August 2012.

When LaVenia returned to the property in September 2012, she discovered the bar had been destroyed and holes had been smashed in the walls. Many of the restaurant’s assets were gone, allegedly given away or sold by the defendant.

LaVenia alleges that the defendant caused her losr business opportunities, and accuses the defendant of breaching his duties by wrongfully removing her as a member-manager, causing the restaurant’s eviction, and deceptively concealing his actions from the plaintiff.

The defendant is accused of breach of fiduciary duty, violation of the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act, and conversion.

The plaintiff seeks and unspecified amount in damages for loss of past, present and future income.

The plaintiff is represented by Kirk Reasonover of Reasonolver & Olinde LLC of New Orleans.

The case has been assigned to Division N Judge Ethel S. Julien.

Case no. 2013-07093.

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