Bren Simon is poised to replace her outside legal team in favor of a heavy hitter from Chicago as she appeals two courtroom setbacks in Hamilton County.
The widow of shopping mall billionaire Melvin Simon has petitioned the Indiana Court of Appeals 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 $2 billion estate.
Bren 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.
Meanwhile, Melvin's wife of 37 years apparently has given attorneys Michael V. Ciresi, David W. Beehler, Stacey P. Slaughter, Steven K. Orloff and David Martinez their walking papers. Simon hired the high-profile Ciresi team early in 2010.
The team of attorneys from Minneapolis-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP petitioned the court this week to withdraw as counsel. The judge did not immediately grant the request at a hearing Tuesday, giving an attorney for newly appointed trustee Theodore R. Boehm a chance to respond.
The concern is whether allowing the out-of-state attorneys to withdraw could jeopardize the trustee's access to estate documents. The trustee's attorney said the firm already has delivered 88,000 pages.
Bren has hired a new legal team led by Anton R. Valukas, chairman of Jenner & Block LLP, a Chicago-based powerhouse with 470 attorneys and offices in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Her local attorneys, William E. Wendling Jr. and Anne Hensley Poindexter of Noblesville-based Campbell Kyle Proffitt LLP, remain on the case.
The hearing Tuesday was a bit awkward for Wendling and Poindexter, since technically Bren Simon is no longer a party in the case after her removal as trustee. The attorneys said they attended the hearing to represent Bren "in her former capacity as trustee." Ciresi and Beehler joined Tuesday's hearing by phone but said little.
The names on the case will need to be changed to reflect a change in parties, the judge said. The plaintiff is Deborah Simon, one of Melvin's children from a previous marriage. The defendant will change to Boehm, a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who is catching up on the case as trustee. Bren could intervene in the case as a third party, depending on the results of her appeals.
In removing Bren as trustee, Judge 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 attorneys with Bingham McHale 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.
Deborah claims Bren coerced Melvin to make changes to his estate plan in February 2009, seven months before he died at age 82. (Click here for a July story on the dispute that includes video excerpts of Bren's deposition; the first of the four videos appears below.)
Deborah contends Melvin was suffering from dementia and didn’t understand what he was doing when he signed off on the plan, which boosted the share of his fortune going directly to Bren from one-third to one-half. The changes also wiped out a portion that was to go to Deborah and her two siblings from Simon’s first marriage—Cynthia Simon-Skjodt and David Simon, the CEO of Simon Property Group Inc.
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.