Justices in tug-of-war over judge in suit accusing ex-lawyer of estate theft

Nearly eight months after the Indiana Supreme Court accepted the resignation of a one-time northern Indiana judge and former lawyer accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a widow client’s estate, justices now are being asked to remove the judge hearing a related civil lawsuit. Charities who claim they were defrauded, meanwhile, are asking the state’s high court to order the judge stay in the case.

The latest developments in civil litigation against former Monon attorney Robert V. Monfort come from a third-party defendant added to claims that Monfort, his law office and former nonlawyer assistant Teri Hardin defrauded charities of a widow’s final bequest — allegedly more than $775,000.

Jasper-Newton Foundation, which was expecting to administer the final bequest of Rose Nagel for the benefit of Catholic schools in her hometown of Rensselaer, sued Monfort and Hardin seeking damages in August 2018. The charities to date have received nothing from the Nagel estate after Monfort resigned from the practice of law amid a discipline case alleging he and his firm stole from Nagel’s estate and the estate of another former client.

Two years after the charities sued Monfort, Hardin’s husband, Jesse Hardin, was added as a third-party defendant. The plaintiffs alleged he may have benefited from his wife’s alleged misconduct.

Jesse Hardin filed an original action with the Indiana Supreme Court on Jan. 22, petitioning for a writ of mandamus ordering Special Judge Mary Harper to remove herself from the case. He claims as a second-generation defendant, he was entitled to a change of judge upon request. “Instead of granting the motion,” Hardin asserted to the justices, Harper “set it for a hearing almost five months down the road and has continued to exercise full jurisdiction in the case.”

Harper — who has sanctioned defendants in the case for misleading the court and had more motions for sanctions pending — recused herself after the mandamus petition was filed. But Jasper-Newton has asked the justices to set aside Harper’s recusal order. In a Jan. 29 brief, the foundation urged the court to order Harper to resume jurisdiction, arguing among other things that Hardin’s motion was untimely and the foundation would “suffer extreme hardship” if the trial judge was removed.

“(T)he reassignment of this case into a new court in contravention of the facts in the trial court’s record would effectively and needlessly protract this underlying litigation” and prevent adjudication of sanctions rulings and other pending motions, Jasper-Newton argues. The original action is State of Indiana Ex Rel. Jesse L. Hardin v. The Jasper Superior Court No. 1, 21S-OR-23.

The tussle over who will hear the case follows filings last month as the foundation seeks to trace the dissipation of Nagel’s money. A court filing suggests Monfort may have used some of it to pay down his home mortgage.

Monfort has not been criminally charged. An attorney representing him in the underlying civil lawsuit declined to comment. The case is The Jasper-Newton Foundation, Inc. v. Teri L. Hardin, Robert V. Monfort, Robert V. Monfort Attorney-at-Law, P.C., 37D01-1808-PL-000703.

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission filed a formal complaint against Monfort in April 2020 accusing him “of engaging in criminal acts” and “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” among a litany of other ethical charges. Monfort’s discipline case ended in June, when he resigned from the practice of law. Resigning required Monfort to admit that there was a disciplinary proceeding pending and he could not successfully defend himself.

In July, Harper sanctioned Monfort and his former attorney, Vincent Antaki of the Reminger law firm, ruling they had made false statements in an effort to mislead the court in the civil lawsuit.

Teri Hardin, Monfort’s former law firm nonlawyer assistant — and Nagel’s one-time guardian —also is a defendant in the case. She is at the center of a controversy over what happened to Nagel’s final will, a situation that caused Hardin’s former attorney to withdraw, noting he may be called as a witness.

The charities in September raised the stakes, asking the court for treble damages — meaning a potential award of more than $2.3 million.

Monfort had been a judge in Jasper Superior Court 2 from 1994-2000. The Indiana General Assembly dissolved the court, a decision affirmed by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2000.

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