A U.S. District Court judge ruled last week that a 2019 lawsuit can go forward over who designed the $350 million Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.
If you recall, renowned Fayetteville architect Marlon Blackwell alleged in the suit filed in December that his firm designed the casino, but a Memphis design firm — a firm Blackwell brought into the project — is taking credit for it.
Blackwell also alleged in the suit that HBG Design Inc. “provided false information” to John Berrey, who at the time was chairman of the Quapaw Nation, leading to Blackwell’s firm being removed from the project in 2019. With Marlon Blackwell Architects off the job, HBG would receive all the fees for the project instead of splitting them with Blackwell’s firm, the suit said. Blackwell said his share of fees should be $4.45 million.
Berrey, who is named in the suit and has since been replaced as chairman by Joseph Byrd, argued in February that the allegations against him should be thrown out on the grounds of tribal sovereign immunity.
But Judge Kristine G. Baker disagreed and said sovereign immunity wouldn’t protect Berrey in this lawsuit.
In the suit, Blackwell is not asking for damages from Berrey, or his successor. Blackwell only wants the court to stop Berrey from using the design, which is authorized under copyright law.
Baker said in the order that “MBA’s complaint sufficiently alleges facts that, if true, state a claim against Mr. Berrey in his official capacity for violation of federal law upon which prospective injunctive relief can be granted.”
Blackwell’s attorney, Mark Henry of the Fayetteville office of the Rose Law Firm, said in a statement to Whispers that Berrey tried to delay the lawsuit by claiming tribal immunity. “That’s opposite what he said to the Arkansas Racing Commission to secure the license for the Saracen casino,” Henry wrote. “He has used this delay to open the casino built using my client’s designs, without compensation.”
An attorney for Berrey, Ralph Wilson III of Hope Trice O’Dwyer & Wilson of Little Rock, didn’t immediately return a call for comment. Berrey told Arkansas Business in January that he intended to defend himself in the lawsuit.
HBG Design also asked in February that the case be dismissed. But Baker denied that request too.
An attorney for HBG, Jason James Campbell of the Little Rock law firm Anderson Murphy & Hopkins, said he doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Marlon Blackwell Architects is suing HBG Design over allegations that include copyright infringement and for damaging its business relationship with the Quapaw Nation and Saracen Development LLC in connection with the Saracen Casino Resort project.
In a statement to Whispers, Blackwell said, “Anybody who looks at both images of this unique design knows there was copying of our federally protected architectural designs. We simply want to be treated fairly, and we trust the legal process.”