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Daughter in Guardian Case Drops Lawyer

19 June 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - Francine Ardito, the Virginia daughter of 90-year-old Laurette Borduas Eifrig, has discharged her lawyer here, lashing out at the Rhode Island court system for what she terms "extreme procrastination" and favoritism in its handling of issues surrounding her mother's guardianship.

In a letter terminating the services of lawyer Janet A. Mastronardi, Ardito is effusive in her praise of the representation she's received but says she simply can't afford to pay any more money in her Superior Court fight to bring her mother back to Virginia.

"My family and I have discussed the extreme procrastination practices of the Rhode Island courts, the enormous emotional and financial burdens and the fact that we see no ability to resolve this case in the near future. We feel that the other attorneys, including the guardian, have their own agendas and they have been favored by both the court and the press. So much of what I have heard about, and read about, regarding your state has unfortunately proven to be true," Eifrig said in a letter Mastronardi received Friday.

But Eifrig's lawyer and a lawyer representing her older daughter, Suzette Gebhard, asserted at a hearing yesterday that Mastronardi's discharge was actually part of a tactic by Ardito to stall court proceedings in Rhode Island so that she can try, through the Virginia legal system, to accomplish what she hasn't yet been able to here: to obtain a judge's order giving her full control over her mother's money so she can move Eifrig out of assisted-living in Providence and back to Virginia.

Ardito has power of attorney for her mother, who is blind and suffers from dementia. She is also co-trustee of her mother's Virginia trust. In a case she brought in Rhode Island, she is trying to wrest guardianship of her mother away from a court-appointed lawyer, Paula M. Cuculo. Cuculo was appointed Eifrig's temporary guardian last summer by Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney after Ardito's older sister, Suzette Gebhard, moved Eifrig to live with her in Warren. Eifrig had lived for 13 years in Virginia, near the Arditos, before Gebhard, without consulting her sister, moved her here in May 2006. Once here, Gebhard blocked Ardito and Cuculo from seeing Eifrig. In January, the police had to knock down Gebhard's door to get access to Eifrig. She's been living since early February at Capitol Ridge on Smith Street.

Ardito has racked up more than $65,000 in legal fees in her attempt to get her mother back to Virginia but is seeking an order from Gibney to have her mother reimburse her for the entire amount. Cuculo is objecting.

In recent weeks - as she awaits Gibney's decision on who will be appointed permanent guardian of her mother - Ardito has hired a Virginia lawyer and tried to withdraw all of Eifrig's trust money from accounts Gibney has declared frozen.

Last week, Eifrig's lawyer, Richard A. Boren, asked that Ardito be held in contempt and removed as her mother's trustee because her actions in Virginia are "repugnant to the best interests" of her mother.

Gibney will take up those issues on June 26. In the meantime, she ordered that Ardito make no further attempt to touch any of her mother's money. She also ordered Cuculo to try to take possession of the trust funds so that Eifrig's Rhode Island living expenses can be paid, as well as a lawyer in Virginia whom Boren has hired for her.

In her letter discharging Mastronardi, Ardito says that having her mother "wrenched from us" has been the hardest thing she and her family have ever endured. "The emotional stress has been overwhelming. First, not knowing where my mother was and whether or not she was all right, then finding out where she was and being kept from her by Suzette, and then finally getting her and being prohibited to see and talk to her by the court as if we were criminals … the entire ordeal has been unbelievable," she said.

If the Rhode Island courts are left to decide the issue, she predicted, "they will never send my mother home, she will die there lonely and without any of her family there to support her, while they continue to use up the money that she worked her whole life to save for her later years."

"You are an excellent attorney," she told Mastronardi. "You put in 110 percent into everything you do … I want my mother back, we all want her back, but I cannot continue to finance this effort any longer."

Mastronardi, citing Supreme Court ethics rules, told Gibney at the start of yesterday's hearing that based on her discharge, she could no longer represent Ardito. But Boren objected to Mastronardi's withdrawal, saying he feared Ardito will never file the required papers to represent herself here and that she'd "just ignore" the case and proceed in Virginia.

"It will be a war in Virginia," Boren predicted, noting that Ardito had hired a very aggressive lawyer in that state, someone, he said, who takes a "no holds barred" approach.

He told Gibney that unless she entered an immediate order authorizing Cuculo to use some of Eifrig's trust funds to hire her own Virginia attorney, a default judgment would be entered there in a matter of days which would give Ardito full control over her mother's money.

Gebhard's lawyer, James T. McCormick, concurred. "We have an elderly person whose fate, whose very life depends on these funds," he said.

Gibney entered the requested order and told Mastronardi she wasn't going to allow her to withdraw until Ardito, who wasn't present, completed the necessary paperwork to represent herself. You can't come in and abandon a case and leave it in limbo, Gibney told her. "I have to maintain control over [Eifrig's] funds."

Eifrig, in testimony taken last month, told Gibney that she would like to remain at Capitol Ridge. But Cuculo says that Eifrig misses her family and in recent days, has talked both about moving to a larger unit at Capitol Ridge and of moving to a similar facility in Virginia.
Cuculo reiterated yesterday that Eifrig does not want either daughter in control of her finances and that she wants to amend her trust so that her two daughters and granddaughter share equally in her estate. Currently, Ardito stands to inherit $200,000 more than her sister or daughter. But Cuculo told Gibney that Eifrig told her she never approved that and is "very angry" with the way things stand.

Because of their legal feud and orders issued by Gibney, neither daughter has been visiting their mother at Capitol Ridge. Over Easter weekend, the judge barred Gebhard from having any contact with her mother, saying she posed a "kidnapping risk." But yesterday, at McCormick's request, Gibney loosened the restrictions, saying Gebhard could visit with her mother if supervised by Cuculo or someone designated by her. Gebhard plans to see her mother tomorrow for the first time since Good Friday.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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