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The money that put Bonnie Lee MacDonald through law school may be the unmaking of her legal career, now that the state Supreme Court has reinstated a jury’s $282,777 award for statutory theft from a 92-year-old woman. A unanimous court recently ruled that Stamford Judge Trial Referee Frank H. D’Andrea Jr. abused his discretion when he set aside the jury’s statutory theft verdict, which trebled the $94,259 in withdrawals that MacDonald actually received. William Howard, the executor and nephew of the late Hedwig Williams, was managing her financial affairs under a power of attorney. Because his aunt’s memory was failing, MacDonald and her mother, who lived in the same New Canaan apartments as the elderly Williams, made sure she took her medicine and helped her live independently. In November 1996, MacDonald went with Williams to a Chase Manhattan branch in New Canaan where bank employee Dorothy Fronio was familiar with the older woman’s mental disorientation. That day, Williams was “in her normal confused state,” Fronio testified as to why she declined to permit a withdrawal of money. In December 1996, MacDonald wrote to the nephew asking him to sign forms allowing his aunt to give her “a gift of [blank] to assist her in law school.” The next day, MacDonald typed a letter to Norwalk Savings Society on the elderly woman’s behalf, directing the transfer of $35,000 to MacDonald and her mother. In January 1997, the aunt telephoned her nephew in an agitated state and confessed that she’d withdrawn all her money from her account in the Fairfield County Savings Bank and given it to MacDonald — a lump sum of $94,242.09. MacDonald had obtained a lost passbook withdrawal order for the woman to sign “despite the fact that [MacDonald] knew that the passbook was not lost,” Justice Joette Katz wrote. $55,000 OFFER REJECTED The nephew failed in his demands that MacDonald return the funds. A year after his aunt’s death, he filed suit as her executor, and made a $55,000 offer of judgment, which MacDonald rejected. At the 2002 trial before D’Andrea, the jury found her liable for the civil wrong of statutory theft, which imposes treble damages. After D’Andrea set aside the theft award, MacDonald was legally liable for about $135,000 due to accrued interest. At that point, Stamford solo David W. Rubin, who represented the estate at trial, extended a discounted offer of settlement. Instead MacDonald appealed. Everett E. Newton, of Hartford-based Murtha Cullina, defended MacDonald at the May 20 oral arguments. Rubin argued for the estate. “In essence, she went for broke on tenuous grounds,” Rubin said in an interview. Due to the passage of another two years since the verdict, the 12 percent offer-of-judgment interest has increased to about $460,000, a debt that’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy, Rubin added. Since the July 13 ruling reimposed the statutory theft judgment, Rubin said it “calls into question whether [MacDonald] can remain a practicing attorney. I guess it would be up to the Statewide Grievance Committee,” he said. MacDonald has no history of disciplinary action, according to Judicial Branch computer records. “We’re obviously disappointed,” Newton said. “Sometimes juries make mistakes, which we believe occurred in this case.” The Supreme Court, he maintained “failed to take into account the extremely close relationship” between MacDonald and Williams. Newton noted that his client was “a law student, not a lawyer” when the events took place. Rubin said he’s surprised the case didn’t settle. “Their claim was that she just didn’t have the money. Our suggestion was that she should try to obtain it; that she shouldn’t gamble with her future ability to practice law and earn a living.”

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