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Mother at Center of Dispute Granted Her Wish

27 June 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - It looks like Laurette Borduas Eifrig will be able to continue living at Capitol Ridge for the indefinite future.

Yesterday morning, Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney removed Francine Ardito, Eifrig's Virginia daughter, as co-trustee of her mother's trust. The judge also revoked Ardito's power of attorney for her 90-year-old mother.

At the request of Eifrig's Providence attorney, the judge told the guardian she appointed for Eifrig - North Providence lawyer Paula M. Cuculo - to assume those roles.

Cuculo said after the hearing that now that she has power of attorney for Eifrig and is co-trustee of her trust, she will immediately request that all of Eifrig's money be transferred to her from Virginia so that she can continue to pay Eifrig's bills. She's also arranging to move Eifrig, at her request, to a larger, $4,900-a-month unit at Capitol Ridge. She says she hopes Ardito will send her mother's furniture to her but doubts that she will.

Eifrig, a retired school teacher who is blind and suffers from dementia, was moved in May 2006 from her home of 13 years in Reston, Va., to Rhode Island by her older daughter, Suzette Gebhard, without notifying Ardito.

Ardito, who lived near her mother and had taken care of her for years, sought help from the Rhode Island courts after her sister refused to let her - and later Cuculo - visit Eifrig here. In late January, the Warren police had to knock down Gebhard's door to gain access to the mother, who was briefly hospitalized and then taken by Cuculo to live at Capitol Ridge, an assisted-living facility on Smith Street.

Last month, in testimony she gave to Gibney, Eifrig said she wants to remain living at Capitol Ridge.

Ardito, who has been trying to get her mother back to Virginia for more than a year, has attempted in recent months to wrest guardianship away from Cuculo. But last Friday, Gibney ruled that because of their animosity toward each other, neither of Eifrig's daughters was suitable to be her guardian.

Yesterday's hearing before Gibney was scheduled because of actions Ardito has taken in her home state in the past few weeks. Within days after her mother told Gibney she wanted to remain in Rhode Island, she began a campaign in Virginia to freeze her mother's trust funds. Acting under her power of attorney and as co-trustee of her mother's trust, she instructed Virginia banks that only she had authority to withdraw her mother's money and ordered them not to release any more funds to Cuculo for her mother's care.

As a result of Ardito's maneuvering, Eifrig's Rhode Island lawyer, Richard A. Boren, filed motions to adjudge Ardito in contempt and to remove her power of attorney and position as co-trustee. A hearing was scheduled for last week but then postponed to yesterday after Ardito discharged her lawyer here and faxed papers to Gibney saying she would represent herself.

But when Gibney took the bench yesterday, Ardito wasn't present. In a voice-mail message she left for Gibney's clerk - which the judge had her stenographer read into the court record - she said she was unable to appear, had not been given proper notice of the hearing and that she objected to anything happening until she could be present. She was requesting a nine-week continuance.

Gibney decided that the hearing would go forward without Ardito and summoned the lawyer Ardito had discharged, Janet A. Mastronardi, to appear in her stead - which delayed the hearing for an hour so that Mastronardi could be contacted and drive to court from East Greenwich.

The hearing immediately became tense with Mastronardi repeatedly challenging Gibney on her authority to make her represent Ardito's interests. She'd been discharged by her client on June 15, she protested, and wasn't being paid by her anymore.
Mastronardi told Gibney that by ordering her to be present, she was forcing her to violate the Rhode Island Supreme Court's Rules of Professional Conduct, which she said, mandate her to bow out of a case when a client discharges her.

"I do not represent Francine Ardito … There is no way this court can keep me here uncompensated and having been discharged," Mastronardi argued. "I want to go now."
"No attorney can withdraw without consent of the courts," Gibney retorted, citing rules that govern lawyers' practice. She said she would note Mastronardi's objection to her going forward with the hearing but that her objection was "overruled." She also told Mastronardi that she was not going to excuse her from the case until she gives her permission to do so.

But Mastronardi persisted in her request that she be allowed to go, asking several times during the 45-minute proceeding if she could leave. She showed disdain for both Cuculo and Boren, calling various arguments made by them "stupid" and "a farce, a sham on this court." She said she thought it was wrong that Eifrig had been asked questions about how she wanted her estate to be divided and who she wanted to be in charge of her finances "when she can't even remember what she ate for breakfast yesterday."

In arguments made to Gibney, Boren argued that Ardito had breached her fiduciary responsibility to her mother by ordering a Virginia bank and a brokerage company not to release money to Cuculo for Eifrig's care. He also claimed that Ardito had breached a duty to her older sister when she accompanied her mother to a Virginia lawyer a few years ago - a visit that resulted in changes to her mother's trust that will give Ardito family members more than 82 percent of Eifrig's assets when she dies. Under the current trust, Francine would inherit $200,000 more than anyone else. With additional money designated for Francine's estranged husband and their daughter, the Arditos would get $334,000 of the $406,000 currently in Eifrig's trust, Boren told the judge.

"Since I'm here, I might as well say how stupid that sounds," Mastronardi said of Boren's argument. Ardito, she said, needed to be with her mother when she changed her trust in 2004 because she needed to sign the papers as co-trustee of the trust.

But Boren told Gibney he believes that Ardito's recent actions in Virginia with respect to Eifrig's money "have created an inherent conflict of interest between herself and her mother" and that demonstrated that she's now embarked on a plan "to protect her 82 percent interest in the trust."

He asked that Ardito be removed "forthwith" and replaced by Cuculo.

During the hearing, Cuculo said that Eifrig has told her that she wants to amend her trust so that her estate is divided equally between her two daughters and only granddaughter, Alicea Ardito. She is "irate," Cuculo said, that the way things stand, her younger daughter stands to inherit so much more than anyone else. Eifrig, she said, is also adamant that she does not want Ardito to serve as trustee of her trust. "She wants an independent person to serve."

Cuculo said that one of the complaints Eifrig has voiced about Ardito is that Francine would have her bank statements sent to the Ardito home instead of to her, and that sometimes

"Francine would not give her money for things she wanted."

"That's another reason she doesn't want to go back to Virginia," Eifrig's guardian told the court.

After the hearing ended, Mastronardi complained that she believed Gibney's action in forcing her to continue on the case was "holding me out for malpractice." The next time she is called to be present for the Eifrig matter, she told the judge, she'll have an attorney there to represent her.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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