Before Judges Kestin, Ciancia and Alley.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ciancia, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County.
This appeal presents questions concerning the proper establishment and application of attorneys' charging liens when a client, who has been represented by more than one attorney, apparently does not have assets sufficient to satisfy all fee claims. The underlying litigation was a divorce action between plaintiff Peter Martin and defendant Elissa Martin. Appellant is Louis J. Cirrilla, Esq., who at one time represented plaintiff and who has not received payment for his services.
The appellate record in this matter is sparse and many factual allegations are presented without citation or supporting documentation. See R. 2:6-2(a). We believe the following recitation to be accurate. Peter Martin was initially represented by Cirrilla when Cirrilla was employed with the law firm of Aronsohn Weiner, P.C. (AW). Cirrilla left the firm in September 1994 and plaintiff continued to be represented by AW. In March 1995, Cirrilla substituted in for AW and once again became plaintiff's attorney. At that time, AW apparently sought a court order memorializing a charging lien pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:13-5. Although the pleadings in support of that application are not provided to us and we do not know if a hearing was held, on March 8, 1995 a Family Part judge entered an "order for charging lien" that reads as follows:
A. The law firm of Aronsohn & Weiner, Esqs., is hereby granted a charging lien in the sum of $22,132.20, to be impressed and affixed upon all property, both real and personal which may accrue to the plaintiff Peter Martin, including proceeds from the sale of Wyckoff, New Jersey, real property, originally owned by the parties, and held in escrow by Robert Y. Gray, Esq., 824 Garrison Avenue, Teaneck, New Jersey, real premises owned by the parties located at 26 Bergen Street, Englewood, New Jersey, commonly known and designated as Block 1208, Lot 22; real premises located at 107 Ivy Lane, River Vale, New Jersey, commonly known and designated as Block 2106, Lot 26.01; 173 Rivervale Road, River Vale, New Jersey, commonly known and designated as Block 2206, Lot 43, on the respective tax maps of those communities, and all proceeds arising from such property and substitutions thereof, and any time whatsoever, wherever situate, which accrue to the Plaintiff, Peter Martin, at any time, by way of the assertion of claims by the Plaintiff in the matter of Peter Martin v. Elissa Martin, the Swimming Pool Co., Inc., United Jersey Bank, and Citizens First National Bank of New Jersey, presently pending under Docket No. FM 02-361-95, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Bergen County.
B. This lien is without prejudice to the Plaintiff's right to arbitrate fees pursuant to the Rules of Court and any other rights at law or equity which he may have in connection with the fees alleged to be due and owing.
C. The law firm of Aronsohn & Weiner, Esqs., be and they are hereby directed to turn over the file of the Plaintiff, Peter Martin, now in their possession, to the Plaintiff, Peter Martin, or to any counsel he may direct, forthwith, upon service of a copy of this Order.
In May 1996 John Selser substituted in for Cirrilla. An "order relieving counsel for plaintiff and establishing an attorney's lien" was entered by a second judge in favor of Cirrilla on May 10, 1996, although again we do not know what papers or proceedings preceded that order. The language of the order was virtually identical to the order issued to AW, except that Cirrilla's lien was in the amount of $29,147.50.
Although the Cirrilla order does not indicate whether plaintiff was apprised of his right to fee arbitration, the pro se letter brief filed by plaintiff on this appeal states in part:
The court should know that Mr. Cirrilla advised me of my right to fee arbitration on more than one occasion. We discussed it, he wrote me about [it] and it was part of the motion he filed to get his lien. Before letting Mr. Cirrilla out of the case, [the judge] asked me if I understood the proceeding and asked if I had any comments or objections. For the record, I had no problem with Mr. Cirrilla's bills, other than the fact that I did not have the money to pay them. It was and still is my belief that he did everything that he could to properly represent my interests and he deserved to be paid.
The case was tried to conclusion by Selser before yet a third judge. It appears Cirrilla may have assisted Selser in some manner, the extent of which is disputed. Resolution of that disagreement is not necessary for purposes of this decision. It does not appear that Selser ever applied for or received an order memorializing any claim he might have had pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:13-5.
On July 14, 1997, the trial judge gave his oral opinion in the matrimonial litigation. Selser was present in the courtroom and entered his appearance on behalf of plaintiff. An attorney from AW was also apparently present, but the transcript of the opinion does not indicate an appearance. Plaintiff's pro se appellate brief asserts that Mr. Weiner was present at some point, apparently during trial, and "was allowed to make his argument between witnesses in the middle of the case" concerning attorney's ...