An uncle and nephew who co-own Coast staple Desporte & Sons Seafood are locked in a court battle that appears headed for trial.
Artie Desporte, the uncle, sued nephew Sean Desporte in June 2018, demanding a full accounting of business assets and asking that a temporary custodian be appointed to run the business.
Sean Desporte responded that his uncle had not worked at the business since October 2015 but continued to receive the same $1,500 weekly pay and, as president of the company, has access to any financial records he wants to view.
Since the lawsuit was filed, Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel has been acting as referee in what court records show is a bitter family dispute that has disturbed employees and customers alike.
Because of the feud, the judge presided over an agreement that has the Desportes operating separate areas of the business, with Artie Desporte running retail while Sean Desporte runs the wholesale shop. But even that arrangement is disintegrating, prompting Sean Desporte to file an emergency motion Friday for a hearing.
He wants his uncle held in contempt of court for not honoring the arrangement Schloegel sanctioned and he wants to resume operating the entire business on the condition that Desporte and his wife aren’t allowed on the premises.
In the lawsuit, Artie Desporte accused his nephew of relocating the business without consent and removing all financial records, while Sean Desporte claims his uncle was disrupting business by harassing him and his employees. Sean Desporte denies that he ever relocated or hid financial records from his uncle.
Several employees signed sworn statements saying they feel threatened by Artie Desporte’s behavior.
Court records indicate a once close family, including the owners and employees, have been ripped apart by the feud.
One employee, who considered Artie Desporte family, said she filed a police report after he approached her while she was making a deposit at Hancock Bank in D’Iberville.
“Artie motioned for me to pull over and he got into my car and grabbed the bank bag from me, cursing Sean while going through the bag,” she said in her sworn statement. “When he exited my car, he slammed the door really hard.
“As his employee and with the violence towards me, I am in great fear for me and my fellow associates.
“ . . . I fear something bad is going to happen.”
The Desporte name
Five generations of Desportes have run the seafood company, which used to be in a small, wood-frame building on Caillavet Street. The Desportes relocated years ago to Division Street, where a seafood cafe was added to the market. The company also sells seafood wholesale to casinos, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
The business has been a regular stop for generations of Biloxians.
The family suffered a tragedy in 2000, when Emile “Little Junie” Desporte IV, who also worked at Desportes, died at age 27 after a train hit his car early one morning on the CSX railroad tracks. His father, Emile “Junie” Desporte III, who helped run the business for decades, died of cancer in 2007 at age 59.
Emile Desporte Jr., father of Junie and Artie, continued to work at the seafood shop until his own death at age 87 in 2014. Artie Desporte worked alongside his father and brother Junie for years.
A sign on Desportes’ door Friday said the business is closed until further notice, but Artie Desporte said the business will reopen April 16 because he is recovering from eye surgery.
Court date set
Judge Schloegel has scheduled a trial in the lawsuit between the Artie and Sean Desporte for mid-July.
Schloegel signed an order based on an agreement that both sides had reached in August 2018, after the initial flurry of filings in the lawsuit. Both Desportes were to have access to a surveillance system installed in the business, including a camera positioned over the cash register.
She also appointed a third party with access to the business and financial records, and ordered Artie Desporte and his wife to stay off the property. His paycheck was to be mailed to him.
At one point, she also ordered Sean Desporte to stay off the property. The judge has since restored access to the property for both Desportes.
Sean Desporte wants the company dissolved, saying he and his uncle, who each own 50 percent, are “hopelessly deadlocked.”
The city has a massive road construction project that includes part of their property and has offered $430,000 for the business property, plus about $120,000 in relocation costs, he says.
Sean Desporte said he proposed the corporation accept the offer, on the condition that he could then buy Artie Desporte’s share of the business stock. If Artie Desporte was unwilling to accept those terms, his nephew proposed dissolving the business, paying its debts and distributing the remaining assets according to stock ownership.
Sean Desporte said he received no response. He believes that dissolving the company is the only “viable alternative” going forward, his motion says.
The attorney for Sean Desporte, David Wheeler of Biloxi, said he could not comment on the ongoing litigation. Artie Desporte’s attorney, Henry Laird of Gulfport, has not returned telephone calls seeking comment.
Staff Writer Mary Perez contributed to this report.