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Appeals court agrees to hear challenge in Simon case

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has agreed to hear an appeal from the widow of the late Melvin Simon, putting on hold a legal dispute over the mall magnate's more than $2 billion estate.

Bren Simon had petitioned the appeals court to overturn a December ruling by Hamilton County Superior Court Judge William J. Hughes that removed her as interim trustee over her late husband's estate.

She also is challenging the judge's refusal to recuse himself from the case after she took issue with his choice of personal counsel to represent him in front of a state judicial commission.

The Hamilton County court this week updated the case docket to show that the higher court had accepted Bren's appeal and ordered a stay in the estate case.

In removing Bren as trustee, Hughes cited her decision to distribute $13 million from the estate to herself without notifying other trust beneficiaries, a move she later tried to recast as a loan. Among Bren's other questionable decisions: Paying her attorneys more than $3 million from the estate without the court's approval, and moving to convert more than $500 million worth of ownership units in Simon Property Group Inc. without appropriate professional advice, the judge wrote.

Attorneys for Bren argued she served capably as executor and trustee of the estate of her late husband, pointing to a series of moves she has signed off on, including the transfer of her husband's stake in the Indiana Pacers and moves to appraise the value of a vast array of holdings.

Bren's efforts to remove Hughes from the case began when the judge hired two Bingham McHale attorneys to represent him after he was charged with driving while intoxicated in North Carolina in October. A different attorney at the same firm represents Simon Property Group, which got involved in the case after Bren sought to cash out Melvin's ownership units.

Hughes replaced the Bingham McHale attorneys on Nov. 22, three days after Bren’s attorneys objected and asked for a stay in the case. Hughes said he has “no bias” for any party or attorney in the case, but Bren’s attorneys were not convinced.

Melvin's daughter Deborah Simon claims Bren coerced Melvin to make changes to his estate plan in February 2009, seven months before he died at age 82.

Bren has claimed in court filings that the changes to the will reflected Melvin’s desire to compensate her for a drop in the company’s stock price and a reduction in the cash dividend.

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