The delayed Robert E. Lee statue trial might be losing a plaintiff

The silhouette of a statue of a man on a horse is seen against a cloudy sky.

There has been another bump on the long road to legally determine the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue formerly on display in Charlottesville’s Market Street Park.

Lawyers for Ratcliffe Foundation, one of the plaintiffs, argued a motion for substitution this week to reflect that Ratcliffe has started operating as a new corporation since the case was filed and the new Ratcliffe (called Ratcliffe 2 in court for clarity’s sake) and should be allowed to substitute for the old Ratcliffe in the case.

The Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation sued the city in 2021, arguing the city incorrectly followed the state’s legal process when handing the statue over to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, and that the process should essentially be restarted.

More about the Lee statue

Christopher Tate, one of the attorneys representing the Heritage Center and City Attorney Rob Hubbard argued that it is far from a simple procedural motion. Because Ratcliffe (1) didn’t legally exist as a corporation at the time of its initial bid it lacked standing to sue over the statue,   meaning Ratcliffe (2) doesn’t have the ability to succeed them in the case. 

“Our perspective is there was never such thing as [the original Ratcliffe Foundation], it didn’t exist,” Tate told reporters after the hearing during a press briefing. “If you couldn’t state a claim in the first place, you shouldn’t be able to put in a new entity.”

Fred Harman, a Tazewell attorney and Ratcliffe board member, testified during the hearing that the organization’s disincorporation was “on me” as he had missed the letter from the state in 2015 noting Ratcliffe was going to lose its incorporation. The organization made no response and lost its corporate status. Being unaware of that fact, Harman testified the organization continued normal business practices until it discovered the issue several years later and incorporated again in 2022.

Ratcliffe (2) is a wholly separate legal entity than Ratcliffe (1) because more than 5 years passed between disincorporation and legal reincorporation in 2022. 

Ratcliffe’s attorney argued that because Ratcliffe (1) did not know they had lost corporate status — and continued  to do the same business under the same leadership between 2015-2021 when they were not incorporated — it remained a valid sucsessor entity since the law does not specifically require incorporation.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. offered no finding in court this week — taking the issue under consideration at the end of the hearing with a ruling to come.    

“Our intent is to move forward, and this event is not deferring our actions in the project at large,” Andrea Douglas, the African American Heritage Center center’s executive director, told reporters during a post-court press briefing.

The bench trial in this case has been scheduled and postponed three times this year already. A new trial date has yet to be scheduled and a status hearing is on the calendar for June 27 at 9:30 a.m.