Talk about a turf battle.
Nashville real estate investment manager and avid equestrian Jane Cleveland has filed suit against investor David M. Wilds and a company controlled by the Turner family of Dollar General fame. At issue is Cleveland's claim to control over, and some ownership share in, partnerships holding portions of the vast wealth of the Turner clan.
And to hear her tell the story, one of the first signs that relations between Cleveland and the Turners were going downhill was a quarrel arising from a shared love of horses.
In setting out her legal case, Cleveland accuses Wilds -- long a trusted adviser to the Turners, and a director of several companies in which they have interests -- of making "inappropriate overtures" in an effort to "develop a personal relationship" with her. Cleveland does not assert a claim of workplace harassment, however, and her legal action does not spell out what relationship Wilds' supposed actions might have to its core assertions of wrongful dismissal, breach of contract and interference with business relations.
Cleveland filed the lawsuit last Friday in Davidson County Chancery Court, naming Wilds and The Family Office LLC, of which Wilds is CEO, as defendants. Former Dollar General chief Cal Turner Jr., his brother Steve Turner and their sister Laura Turner Dugas jointly own The Family Office, according to the complaint.
A former assistant vice chancellor for university relations and real estate at Vanderbilt University, Cleveland went to work for The Family Office in 2000. Her job involved managing the family's stakes in "real estate funds available only for investors who are able to invest very large sums of money," the legal filing says.
Cleveland was entitled to incentive compensation based on the performance of the holdings, and she was able to put some of her own money into the funds. The legal documents formalizing these arrangements appear to show that Cleveland owns half of the equity in an umbrella company with control of the family holdings, while Wilds owns another 25 percent. The parent company and its subsidiary partnerships are all named for streets in Scottsville, Ky., where the late Cal Turner Sr. and his father started Dollar General in 1939.
Meanwhile, Cleveland says, she was creating what became a prosperous horse boarding business at the stables of Green Pastures, Cal and Margaret Turner's Brentwood farm. Cleveland says she had negotiated employment terms at The Family Office that allowed her time to pursue her parallel career as an amateur equestrian performer.
Last November, however, the Turners banished Cleveland and her horses from their property. Cleveland says the rift arose "because Margaret Turner was unhappy about an article in the local dressage club newsletter that featured Green Pastures and Cleveland." As with the claims about Wilds' advances, the complaint does not explain the relevance of this episode to Cleveland's legal claims.
Things were becoming less than idyllic on the job front as well. The lawsuit asserts that Wilds "made repeated and inappropriate social invitations" to Cleveland involving trips they might take together. She says she "declined all such invitations for personal travel and did not develop a personal relationship with Wilds, as he repeatedly suggested," trying to calm his ardor by "pointing out the vast age difference" between the two. Wilds is 66; Cleveland is in her early 40s.
"Wilds' inappropriate behavior continued as late as December 20, 2005, when Wilds invited Cleveland to join him at his home for a cocktail and then for a private dinner at a Nashville restaurant, supposedly to discuss the business of the Family Office," the complaint continues. "During this dinner, Wilds suggested to Cleveland that they both 'move to Florida and run our funds together.' Cleveland declined that invitation as she had his other inappropriate overtures."
Records at Davidson County Circuit Court indicate that Wilds and his wife Holly divorced in 2004. Cleveland's complaint does not state whether she is married.
On April 4, 2006, Cleveland was fired. She claims the action was contrary to the terms of the agreements under which the investment entities were chartered, asserting that her 50 percent stake gives her the right to block changes in their management. Obviously not seeing things that way, "the Family Office and Wilds have ordered Cleveland out of the Family Office, have interfered repeatedly with her attempts to perform her duties" as manager of the entities, she says in the lawsuit. They have also "changed bank accounts and instructed managers of the funds in which the investment limited partnerships invested not to cooperate with her."
Cleveland asserts that the firing came "despite a very successful performance and recent praise from Wilds," and that she "had just received a bonus that tripled her regular income." She accuses the Turners' company of acting "out of self-interest and spite," without regard to the best interests of the invesment entities, and says their motive was to prevent Cleveland from receiving the monies in the future to which she would be entitled" as manager of the funds.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, to be trebled as they pertain to the claim of interference with business relations. Buck Cole and David Houston of Greenebaum Doll & McDonald brought the case on Cleveland's behalf.
Nashville attorney Aubrey Harwell, who told NashvillePost.com he will represent Wilds and The Family Office in the case, said the defendants had not yet been served with the complaint as of yesterday. "Jane was offered an opportunity in this company, and when it didn't work out, she determined to initiate litigation," he commented.
"We will be vigorously defending our clients in this case," Harwell said. "We have briefly reviewed the complaint and find many of the assertions in it to be totally without merit."
Complaint as filed May 12, 2006