Justices vacate judge’s recent orders in case alleging law firm estate theft

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The Indiana Supreme Court on Friday vacated orders of a trial court judge in a case involving a former law firm’s alleged theft from an estate. The case brought by a Jasper County charity that claims it was defrauded of a bequest is proceeding before a new judge.

Justices issued an order Friday in a mandamus action, granting partial relief to Jesse Hardin, whose wife, Teri, was formerly a nonlawyer assistant of the Monfort Law Office in Monon.

Jasper Newton Foundation alleges in the underlying suit that former attorney and one-time Jasper County judge Robert Monfort and his law office stole upwards of $775,000 from the estate of widow Rose Nagel, who intended for proceeds from her estate to benefit Catholic schools in Rensselaer. Monfort represented Nagel and Teri Hardin was her guardian; both are defendants in Jasper Newton’s suit.

After Jesse Hardin was added as a third-party defendant facing allegations that he may have benefited from the alleged scheme, he moved for a change of judge in December. Special Judge Mary Harper, however, continued to exercise jurisdiction until shortly after Hardin filed the original mandamus action in January.

On Feb. 19, Porter Superior Judge Michael Fish assumed jurisdiction as a special judge in the case.

“In light of these developments, JNF’s counter-petition is moot, and the relator’s petition is partially moot to the extent it seeks to compel a change of judge from Judge Harper, which has occurred,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote Friday, issuing a permanent writ of mandamus in State of Indiana ex rel. Jesse L. Hardin v. Jasper Superior Court No. 1, et al., 21S-OR-23.

“However, ‘[w]hen presented with a timely motion for a change of judge, the trial judge is divested of jurisdiction to act in the case on any matter other than the motion for change of judge or emergency matters.’ State ex rel. Wade v. Cass Cir. Ct., 447 N.E.2d 1082, 1083 (Ind. 1983).” Justices accordingly granted the writ in part, ordering the trial court “to vacate the non-emergency orders issued by Judge Harper after the filing of the change-of-judge motion and before her granting of that motion. This writ is effective immediately.”

The order appears to apply only to procedural, discovery and scheduling matters in the underlying case, Jasper-Newton Foundation, Inc. v. Teri L. Hardin, Robert V. Monfort, Robert V. Monfort Attorney-at-Law, P.C., 37D01-1808-PL-703.

There have been no criminal charges related to the accusations raised in the suit, but Monfort resigned from the practice of law last June. The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission filed a formal complaint last April alleging Monfort engaged in engaging in criminal acts and “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” among a litany of other ethical charges related to his handling of two estate cases, including Nagel’s.

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