On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Union County, Docket No. DC-008962-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 3, 2007
Before Judges Stern and C.S. Fisher.
Plaintiff (the law firm) commenced this action in the Special Civil Part against defendant, alleging that defendant failed to compensate the law firm for legal services rendered on his behalf. At the conclusion of a non-jury trial, the judge set forth his oral decision and entered judgment in favor of the law firm in the amount of $7,695.25.
The evidence adduced at the trial reveals that as a result of a fire in his home on January 24, 2004, defendant pursued a claim against his fire insurer, U.S.A.A. Insurance Company, seeking reimbursement for the reconstruction of his home, property lost in the fire, and temporary housing. In addition, defendant sought reimbursement for temporarily housing his four dogs with a friend, Thomas O'Laria. Even though O'Laria never billed defendant and expected no compensation for boarding the dogs, defendant submitted a claim to the fire insurer for pet care services in the amount of $7,480.
When the fire insurer requested a copy of the bill, defendant created one and signed O'Laria's name. Defendant submitted this forged bill to the fire insurer and falsely claimed he had paid O'Laria.
Apparently not satisfied with defendant's submission, the fire insurer sent a representative to O'Laria's home to question him about the bill. As a result of what was then learned, the fire insurer requested that defendant undergo an examination under oath and warned that the entire claim could be denied if this pet care claim was found fraudulent.
Correctly appreciating how these circumstances could jeopardize his entire fire loss claim, see Longobardi v. Chubb Ins. Co. of N.J., 121 N.J. 530 (1990), defendant consulted with an attorney. This attorney referred defendant to Marc Dembling, Esq., who was "of counsel" with the law firm. Dembling informed defendant that the fee for his services would be based upon a $250 hourly rate and that a retainer of $1,000 was required. Defendant paid the retainer. According to Dembling's testimony, a letter that memorialized the retainer agreement was lost or misplaced.
Defendant was examined under oath by the fire insurer. As a result, the fire insurer refused to pay defendant's pet care claim and indicated that it was considering whether to seek disgorgement of all funds previously paid defendant.
After the examination under oath, the law firm billed defendant $2,375; the bill indicates Dembling's hourly rate of $250. The law firm continued to represent defendant and eventually a settlement was reached. The fire insurer agreed not to seek disgorgement of the $378,000 already paid to defendant or to commence any other action against defendant, and defendant agreed not to pursue further his pet care claim or any additional claims based on the fire loss.
The law firm billed defendant an additional $6,264.25 for these additional services. When defendant failed to pay the second (and last) bill -- he had also failed to pay the first --the law firm commenced this action.
At trial, the judge heard the testimony of Dembling, defendant and O'Laria. As we have observed, the judge rendered an oral decision and entered judgment in favor of the law firm for the full amount that had been billed, less the $1,000 retainer, plus costs and fees. ...