On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Morris County, MRS-C-172-97.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges A. A. Rodríguez and Sabatino.
Defendant James Benson appeals from the Chancery Division's November 13, 2006 order, which denied his motion to reconsider and vacate an order of September 18, 2006 as well as prior orders dating back to 1997. The orders in question impose and continue restraints upon defendant with respect to his conduct relating to plaintiff, Convent Mews Association, Inc. ("Convent Mews").
Defendant has been a unit owner in the Convent Mews condominium complex in Morristown since the early 1980s. He continues to reside there. For many years defendant has been critical of the management of Convent Mews, expressing dissatisfaction with matters such as snow removal, pet rule violations, repairs, street lighting, soil erosion, insects, wasteful expenditures and the like. Over time, defendant's relationship with the condominium's management and its Board of Trustees became very contentious. Defendant displayed his negative feelings about the condominium's operation in inappropriate ways, including alleged threats of physical violence upon Board members, the harassment of neighbors, and the disruption of Board meetings.
Consequently, in 1997 Convent Mews brought an action in the Chancery Division against defendant seeking to curtail his disruptive behavior. On September 11, 1997, the court issued temporary restraints against defendant, prohibiting him from further attending Board meetings, distributing libelous written materials about the condominium association, and having telephone or personal contact with Board members or with designated staff members. Protracted efforts to resolve the case through mediation failed. After considering additional proofs, the court entered a final judgment on July 13, 2000, which included a permanent injunction against defendant and an award of counsel fees. Defendant failed to file a timely appeal of the judgment.
In August 2002 Convent Mews filed an application in aid of litigant's rights to compel defendant to comply with the outstanding injunction. After considering defendant's opposition, the court entered an order on September 3, 2002 finding defendant in "willful violation of the [c]court's [o]rder dated July 12, 2000," and a related order on October 22, 2002 awarding plaintiff additional counsel fees. Neither of those enforcement orders were timely appealed.
In June 2006 defendant moved to vacate the restraints. He also sought a declaration from the court that Convent Mews had "filed false claims against [him] . . . without first determining [the] usefulness of his suggestions." Defendant also requested the court to make certain findings of impropriety concerning the manager of the premises. After considering defendant's filing, Convent Mews' opposing papers and oral argument, the court denied defendant's motion in all respects. In his ruling, the Chancery judge noted:
[Defendant] has failed to establish a factual basis for any of his claims for relief. He continues to portray himself to the court as a victim of oppressive action by the condo association, its officers and employees. In fact, the converse is established by the record. He has created situations for his own personal purposes, then complains when management rejected his ideas for running the condominium complex. His proposals are unrealistic.
Having succeeded in defeating the application, Convent Mews cross-moved for sanctions. The Chancery judge denied the cross-motion, rejecting Convent Mews' claim that defendant's assertions had been frivolous:
Although the [c]court has found against [defendant] on all aspects of the motion which is the focus of this cross-motion, the court finds that his assertion of[,] and argument for[,] relief was not frivolous. He was[,] and continues to be, entitled to ask the [c]court for relief from the permanent injunction ordered on July 12, 2000 upon a showing of changed circumstances.
The judge also rejected Convent Mews' request for additional counsel fees in aid of litigants' rights:
Plaintiff, in the alternative, has relied on Rule 1:10-3 as the basis for an award of attorney fees. Plaintiff, however, has not pointed to any specific order which ...