On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Somerset County, Docket No. FM-18-1028-99.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 13, 2005
Before Judges Skillman, Axelrad and Payne.
This appeal involves the right of an attorney in a matrimonial action to petition for a charging lien on the client's assets and the procedures to be followed in adjudicating such a petition.
Petitioner Richard M. Belson was the attorney for respondent Debra D. Levine in a matrimonial action she brought against her husband Michael B. Levine. The case was tried over a period of nineteen days beginning in August 2001 and ending in December 2002.*fn1
One of the disputed issues was respondent's claim for an award of counsel fees against her husband. She sought a total counsel fee award of $388,937.90, of which $365,626.25 constituted Belson's billings and another $23,311.65 the billings of a "backup" attorney retained by respondent during Belson's illness. Although Belson requested a plenary hearing on respondent's claim for counsel fees against her husband,*fn2 the court denied the request, deciding the issue solely on the basis of certifications and arguments of counsel.
On June 23, 2003, the trial court issued an oral opinion deciding all issues in the matrimonial action. Regarding counsel fees, the court awarded plaintiff $52,500 to be paid by her husband. In making this award, the court noted that the billing for the legal services provided by respondent's husband were $104,471.25, which was less than one-third the amount Belson had billed to respondent. The court found that Belson had overlitigated the case and that his billings to plaintiff and those of the back-up attorney were excessive:
This Court finds that all in all, the Levine case presented a routine matrimonial matter in which the parties stake out their respective differing positions based upon readily discernible and available economic data.
This Court further finds that from the outset of this litigation, Mr. Belson engaged in a course of conduct specifically designed to protract the litigation in a manner calculated to engender legal fees. It is fair to find that Plaintiff's counsel's focus during the pendente lite period and throughout the trial was centered upon an award of legal fees.
The court concluded that the reasonable and necessary fees for handling the matrimonial action on respondent's behalf were $105,000, half of which should be paid by respondent's husband:
I find the statement of services rendered by [husband's attorney] of $104,471.25 is reasonable and necessary and fairly representative of fees incurred in cases of similar complexity.
Moreover, as I have found that Mr. Levine is in a superior financial position than Mrs. Levine, he should be responsible for one-half of Mrs. Levine's reasonable and necessary legal fees. This Court finds that Mrs. Levine's reasonable and necessary legal fees are $105,000.00. Accordingly, ...