SALEM — The elderly matriarch of a prominent North Shore family has lost her attempt to get court orders requiring that payments from a trust controlled by her sons and her brother-in-law resume, in what a Salem Superior Court judge yesterday described as a game of legal hardball.
Denise Rockett, 71, went to court earlier this month against her sons, Michael and Richard Rockett, who run the real estate empire, including a hotel, built by their late father, J. Hilary Rockett. She also sued her brother-in-law, retired judge Edward Rockett, and a family lawyer, Eugene Nigro, who were appointed as trustees.
Mrs. Rockett accused them of cheating her out of what she was entitled to receive as the beneficiary of a trust established by her late husband.
Her lawyer, Michael O'Connor, told Judge Howard Whitehead that the payments, once $27,000 a month, have dwindled to nothing since her late husband's death in 2009, and that bills for club memberships, the mortgages on their homes (which were used to finance construction of the hotel) and other expenses are no longer being paid.
But yesterday, lawyers for her sons blasted the lawsuit as "forum shopping" by a woman not only unsatisfied with $17 million in assets left to her by her late husband but with a Probate Court order that overruled her efforts to remove her sons from the family business.
And in court papers, lawyers for the two other trustees, Edward Rockett and Nigro, described Mrs. Rockett as "erratic" and "easily influenced."
But they say the fissure that put Mrs. Rocket, her other son J. Hilary Jr., and daughter Pamela Castner on one side and Michael, Richard and Edward Rockett on the other, opened up at least six years ago during a dispute between J. Hilary Jr. and his father. That dispute led to what the lawyers called a "business divorce" between the patriarch and his namesake.
They say in court papers that they believe that Denise Rockett is being put up to the legal battle by her two other children, J. Hilary Jr. and Pamela, noting that J. Hilary Jr., cut out of his father's will, will inherit only what his mother leaves him.
During yesterday's hearing, Denise Rockett's lawyer, Michael O'Connor, asked that the judge issue an injunction requiring the payments to resume as they were being made prior to her husband's death, as well as another order that her own forensic accountant be allowed access to the business to review the expenses.
He argued that the salaries of Michael and Richard Rockett, which he estimated at between $400,000 and $500,000 a year, were excessive, and accused them of using trust income to pay personal expenses.
But lawyers for Michael, Richard and the other two trustees argued that Denise Rockett showed up one morning last March and "stormed" the offices of Rockett Management, leading to a call to police, and that afterward, they discovered files of the firm's own accountant had been "tampered with."
"I've never seen a more direct attempt to circumvent an order of one court by another," said Kenneth Walton, the lawyer for Richard and Michael Rockett.
He said the sons have actually paid their mother more than she's entitled to — until the lawsuit was filed — "because it's their mother."
"The last place they want to be is in court, and the last place they want to be seen is in the newspapers," said Walton, who complained that Michael Rockett first learned of the suit from a Salem News reporter, and later alluded to his client's recent loss in a campaign to be re-elected as a Marblehead selectman.
After hearing from both sides, Whitehead concluded that: he's not sure the lawsuit belongs in Superior Court because there is also litigation pending in Probate Court next door; the request for payments is not supported by any hard evidence of how much she is actually due at the moment; and there's no evidence that delaying action will affect the ultimate outcome of the case.
Whitehead said that based on what he has seen so far, Mrs. Rockett may be getting all that she is entitled to at this point.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.