Goldmann, Freund and Conford. The opinion of the court was delivered by Goldmann, S.j.a.d.
Emerson Richards appeals pro se from those parts of judgments entered in the Chancery Division awarding him counsel fees for legal services performed as attorney for the State in two escheat cases, claiming the awards are inadequate.
On May 13, 1952 the former Attorney-General designated appellant as State's attorney to prosecute an action under the Custodial Escheat Act, N.J.S. 2 A:37-29 et seq. (hereinafter called the "custody case"), to obtain custody of funds in the possession of defendant Republic Steel Corporation. On July 10, 1952 he was appointed to institute an action for the escheat of funds against the same defendant under the 14-year Escheat Act, N.J.S. 2 A:37-11 et seq. (hereinafter called the "escheat case"). Pursuant to such appointment and upon information furnished by the escheator, appellant on November 25, 1953 commenced both actions by way of complaint in a summary manner under the statutes. After many continuances -- a usual occurrence in escheat cases, necessary to enable the defendant corporation to assemble and analyze a large volume of records, and to reduce them
to schedules -- defendant filed answers in the custody case on February 11, 1955, and in the escheat case on March 18, 1955. It subsequently amended its answers.
On October 4, 1955 the present Attorney-General wrote to appellant terminating his services for the State in both actions, as well as in several other cases not here in issue. After notice and hearing the Chancery Division entered an order on November 10, 1955 substituting the Attorney-General as attorney for the State in place of appellant. Thereafter extensive negotiations were commenced and resolved relating to two main questions. It was decided to let the question of the validity of the statute of limitations defense in the custody case abide the outcome of State v. United States Steel Corp. , 22 N.J. 341 (1956), where the identical issue was presented. The only remaining problems concerned the escheat or custody of certain of defendant's securities in the possession of two banks: (1) could the State obtain absolute escheat of the securities in the escheat case, and (2) could it gain custody of unclaimed dividends in the custody case? From an examination of the affidavits of services filed by the Attorney-General, considered together with those of the attorney for defendant, it appears that the Attorney-General performed the following services after the order of substitution: a review of the amended answers reporting the finding of additional personal property subsequent to the filing of the original answer; preparation for pretrial, which included the pretrial data and conferences that resulted in the entry of pretrial orders in the escheat and custody cases; preparation of a proposed stipulation of facts for trial; review and examination of complicated written instruments and securities upon which the right of ownership questionably in defendant's custody and control depended; conferences with defense counsel and the attorney for a New York trust company relative to the right of ownership of these securities; preparation and study of a proposed compromise to settle the State's claims respecting such securities, leading to an ultimate settlement; hearing in the trial court at which the compromise settlement
was approved; review and study of defendant's supplemental amended answer; conferences with defendant's attorney and preparation of findings of fact and conclusions of law for final judgment.
Appellant filed short affidavits of services rendered as attorney for the State, requesting $1,826.37 counsel fee in the escheat case (the State escheated $15,763.69 in that action), and $8,756 for services rendered in the custody action (the State here took custody of $165,227.41). Following out a past practice of advising the court as to the fees that might be allowed, the Attorney-General then recommended that appellant be awarded $500 in the escheat case and $1,750 in the custody action. At the oral argument respecting fees, appellant submitted a supplemental affidavit of services listing conferences he had attended or which had been covered for him in the cases in question as well as others. This affidavit dealt with services for the period from February 9, 1951, some 15 months before his appointment to prosecute the Republic Steel escheats, until September 21, 1956, almost a year after his discharge. The trial court questioned appellant at some length respecting the services he had rendered, and especially sought to determine whether he was seeking compensation for work performed in other cases or that had been rendered either prior to his appointment or following his discharge. The court also heard the Deputy Attorney-General and the attorney for defendant, and then directed the former to submit an affidavit detailing the work performed by the Attorney-General subsequent to the time of the order of substitution. This was done, and appellant took the opportunity to file an additional supplemental affidavit.
After considering the several affidavits of service, including those presented by counsel for defendant, and hearing argument, the court arrived at its independent determination and awarded appellant $750 in the escheat case and $2,500 in the custody case.
There is no longer any question that counsel fees may be allowed in both escheat and custody cases because
of the existence of a fund in court. R.R. 4:55-7(b); State v. Otis Elevator Company , 12 N.J. 1 (1953); State v. United States Steel Corp. , above, 22 N.J. 341 (1956). The amount of such award, however, rests within the sound discretion of the trial court, R.R. 4:55-7(b), and absent a manifest misuse of that discretion, an appellate court will not disturb the allowance. In re Broad St. National Bank of Trenton , 37 N.J. Super. 171, 174 ...