PGC, NPT suit against former employees still ongoing

Published 1:47 pm Saturday, January 28, 2023

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NATCHEZ — The Pilgrimage Garden Club and a company it owns, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, is suing former Pilgrimage Garden Club president, Eugenie Cates, and former manager of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, Linda Smith, and a new tour company the two have formed.

The lawsuit claims Cates, Smith and their company, Explore While Driving LLC, which is doing business as Little Easy Tours, stole data and proprietary secrets, were deceitful and did not fulfill their duties while still affiliated with the PGC and NPT and poisoned business relationships and contacts, all in order to profit themselves.

Cates, Smith and their company deny the allegations.

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Attorneys Christine Crockett White of Balch & Bingham LLP in Jackson and Robert C. Latham of Truly, Smith & Latham PLLC of Natchez represent the Pilgrimage Garden Club and Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.

Natchez Attorney Timothy Blalock represents Cates, Smith and their company, Little Easy Tours.

The lawsuit was filed May 24, 2022, in Adams County Circuit Court. In the suit, the plaintiffs seek damages and “injunctive relief” and claim the defendants breached their fiduciary duties, interfered with plaintiffs’ business relations and misappropriated trade secrets.

The Pilgrimage Garden Club, a non-profit organization, has been the foremost influence on tourism in Natchez since the 1940s, according to the lawsuit.

PGC and NPT claim in the suit that Natchez Pilgrimage Tours has worked to promote the city by facilitating year-round tourism and its numerous sites of architectural and historic significance through print and online advertising and attendance at trade shows. Further, its claims NPT develops and books tours, entertainment, dinners, lodging and special events for national and international individuals and groups.

The lawsuit reads NPT’s services provide funding for maintenance and restoration of Pilgrimage Garden Club-owned antebellum structures, as well as 22 other antebellum homes and museum homes.

Cates became president of the Pilgrimage Garden Club in May 2018. Smith and employees Genny Harrison and Luke Cockerham were employed by Natchez Pilgrimage Tours during Cates’ time as president.

The lawsuit claims Cates and Smith “enjoyed unfettered access to information regarding NPT and PGC’s contacts, pricing methods, client relationships, vendor agreements and other proprietary information.”

The lawsuit alleges that beginning on April 16, 2021, Cates and Smith “exploited their positions of care with NPT and PGC to enrich themselves. Specifically, Cates, with Smith’s assistance, began planning a coup to take over the operations of NPT to profit from the business that the PGC had established, developed and fine-tuned for decades prior to Cates becoming president of PGC and director of NPT.”

According to the lawsuit, at a meeting of the PGC’s board of directors on April 28, 2021, Cates announced she as resigning as president of the PGC and director of NPT, at which time she left the meeting.

PGC secretary and tour administrator, Genny Harrison, then read a resignation letter for the entire staff of NPT, including herself, Luke Cockerham and Linda Smith. As part of that resignation letter, the NPT employees allowed for 30 days’ notice. However, only Harrison and Cockerham continued to work for an additional few weeks, according to the claims in the lawsuit.

The suit claims Smith, who was working from home, was not working for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, despite giving a 30 days’ notice.

The Pilgrimage Garden Club discovered that “Smith had redirected calls by canceling the Google phone number for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours and changing NPT’s telephone number on NPT’s webside, its Facebook page and other social media sites, with PGC’s phone number. As a result, NPT missed business calls, causing damage to NPT and PGC,” the lawsuit claims.

The suit also claims that Cates and Smith, using credentials obtained during their affiliation with NPT to access its Facebook page and remove current officers’ rights to edit the page and changed the page settings “to only show the Page to people in Thailand.”

The accuses Cates, Smith and their company of contacting, contracting with and working with vendors and tour guides the two worked with while affiliated with NPT and PGC. Cates and Smith also hired the two remaining NPT employees to go to work for their company. Apparently, Cates and Smith, while still working for and holding positions at PGC and NPT formed their competing business on April 16, 2021.

In their answer to the lawsuit, Cates and Smith deny any claims of wrongdoing. Both say the Google numbers were directed to their personal cell numbers and they only directed them to the PGC number because they were no longer working for NPT.

Cates and Smith claim PGC and NPT have no “trade secrets.” The two claim the NPT Facebook page was hacked and hijacked and “to this date” is still not under her control.

Smith has filed a cross complaint alleging she was an hourly employee making $26 per hour while working for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, but she worked more than 200 hours installing a new computer system, for which she was not compensated. Further, she said she was not paid for overtime she worked while employed by NPT.

Cates also filed a cross complaint alleging she worked time for which she was not compensated while at employed by NPT and The Carriage House restaurant.

Neither White nor Latham, attorneys for the Pilgrimage Garden Club and Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, or Timothy Blalock, attorney for defendants, were available for comment on the lawsuit.

According to the Adams County Circuit Court records, the lawsuit is still in the “discovery” phase, which includes the taking of depositions. After that, if attorneys want the court to resolve the case, it would go to one of the two Sixth District Circuit Court Judges for trial.