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Coyle v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Warren County

January 16, 2002


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Long, J.

Argued October 9, 2001

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 340 N.J. Super. 277 (2001).

The Board of Chosen Freeholders of Warren County (Board) appointed John J. Coyle, Jr. to the position of county counsel for a three year term on December 20, 2000. On January 1, 2001, a new Board rescinded Coyle's appointment and replaced him with Joseph J. Bell. The Board claimed the right to discharge Coyle under the Rules of Professional Conduct (Model Rules or RPCs) that require a lawyer to withdraw if he is discharged by the client. RPC 1.16. Coyle counters that, absent cause, he is entitled to serve out the term of office prescribed by the Legislature in N.J.S.A. 40A:9-43. The case requires us to analyze the interplay of the cited rule and statute.


The case arose out of the following facts. The Board is made up of three members, each elected to a three year term on a staggered basis; i.e., one member is elected each year. At the time of the general election in November of 2000, the Board consisted of two Democrats, James S. DeBosh and Ann Stone, and one Republican, John DiMaio. Stone lost her bid for re-election to Michael J. Doherty, a Republican, signaling a change in the Board's majority. Doherty was to take office on January 1, 2001. On December 20, 2000, the then-current Board passed a resolution appointing Coyle as Warren County counsel, an office with a three year term according to N.J.S.A. 40A:9-43.

The one Republican on the Board, DiMaio, along with newly elected Doherty, who was present at the meeting, opposed the appointment and indicated to Coyle that he lacked the trust and confidence of the new Republican majority. DiMaio and Doherty asked Coyle to forego the appointment and indicated that if he did accept, he would be asked to resign upon the Board's reorganization in January. Coyle rejected the request and signed an employment agreement with the County. On January 1, 2001, upon reorganizing with its new member, the Board rescinded the employment agreement with Coyle and enacted a resolution appointing Bell as Warren County Counsel for a three year statutory term.

On January 3, 2001, Coyle filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs, seeking a judgment declaring him to be county counsel. Because the Board did not allege that there was cause for Coyle's dismissal, no factual matter was presented for resolution. The trial court framed the issue as a legal one regarding whether RPC 1.16 or N.J.S.A. 40A:9-43 ultimately governs the dismissal of county counsel. The trial court ruled that the Appellate Division decision in Pillsbury v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, 140 N.J. Super. 410 (App. Div. 1976), is dispositive of the issue and determined that the statutory term trumps RPC 1.l6. In so doing, the court emphasized the importance of the public nature of the Office of County Counsel and the Legislature's intention that there be continuity in that office, given that the composition of the Board could change annually. The court reinstated Coyle with back pay, and rescinded the Board's appointment of Bell.

The Board appealed and, prior to argument, the Attorney General accepted the Appellate Division's invitation to participate as amicus curiae to address the legal and public policy issues raised by the case. Subsequently, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that RPC 1.16 permitted the Board to terminate Coyle as County Counsel without cause. Coyle v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, 340 N.J. Super. 277, 294 (App. Div. 2001). In essence, the Appellate Division held that the case specifically implicated the ethical obligations of attorneys, thus triggering the court's interest in the vindication of its rules, and that there was no basis for distinguishing between county counsel and private counsel regarding the applicability of RPC 1.16.

Coyle has since been appointed to the Superior Court, thus rendering the actual controversy in the case moot. We choose nevertheless to briefly address the legal issue presented. Zirger v. General Accident Ins. Co., 144 N.J. 327, 330 (1996) (resolving abstract legal issue after appeal had been rendered moot "where the underlying legal issue is one of substantial importance, likely to recur but capable of evading review") (citations omitted).


The Board is governed by N.J.S.A. 40A:9-43. That statute provides that the Board "shall appoint a county counsel" whose "term of office . . . shall be 3 years." In addition, such counsel may be removed from office "only for cause" and not for "political reasons." N.J.S.A. 40A:9-25. RPC 1.16 prescribes, in relevant part, that a lawyer "shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if . . . the lawyer is discharged."

The parties to this appeal maintain absolute positions with respect to the statute and the rule. Coyle claims that the case is controlled by the statute; the Board asserts that the RPCs are determinative. They argue that this case presents a direct confrontation between the public policy expressed by the Legislature in creating a term of office for County Counsel and the Supreme Court's constitutional authority to control the practice of law through the RPCs. The Attorney General stakes out a middle ground, invoking our decision in Knight v. City of Margate, 86 N.J. 374, 392 (1981), as requiring a "realistic and fraternal" evaluation of the comparative judicial and legislative interests. The Attorney General concludes that such an evaluation results in the statute being given primacy.

Before grappling with those issues, what is required is a determination of whether the cited authorities are, in fact, applicable at all in these circumstances. Obviously, by its very terms, N.J.S.A. 40A:9-43 is implicated. The relevance of RPC 1.16 is more problematic. A brief history of the Rule is instructive.

From September 1948, when the Rules Governing the Courts of New Jersey were first officially adopted, until September 1971, the Canons of Professional Ethics (Canons) governed the conduct of attorneys in this State. Canon 44 discussed the propriety of and conditions to an attorney's withdrawal from a relationship with his or her client, but was entirely silent regarding a client's ...

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