On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FM-12-499-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 30, 2008
Before Judges Axelrad and Messano.
Defendant Patricia Cimmino appeals from the April 17, 2007, order awarding plaintiff Patrick Cimmino counsel fees in the amount of $1100, and the June 8, 2007, order that denied her motion for reconsideration. Defendant contends her attorney's behavior was not contumacious, that the judge failed to follow the appropriate procedural requirements contained in Rule 1:10-1 and Rule 1:10-2, and that the judge mistakenly exercised his discretion by imposing the sanction. After our review of the record and applicable legal standards, we reverse.
We recite the undisputed facts giving rise to the orders under review. On April 16, 2007, this matrimonial matter was scheduled for an Early Settlement Panel (ESP) in the Middlesex County courthouse. There had been extensive rainstorms and a portion of Route 18, a major traffic artery in the New Brunswick area, was closed. Defense counsel became ensnarled in a traffic jam as a result, and, at approximately 9:30 a.m. he called his office and arranged to have his associate contact the chambers of the presiding judge of the Family Part to advise of the delay. Defense counsel did not have plaintiff's counsel's cell phone number, and, believing the judge's staff would advise her of the delay, did not call opposing counsel's office.
The traffic congestion remained unabated and at 10:00 a.m. defense counsel contacted the presiding judge's chambers directly. He spoke to the judge's law clerk and advised her that it would be at least another hour before he could arrive at the courthouse. Counsel requested that the ESP be re-scheduled and that he be relieved of having to appear. His request was granted by the law clerk and defense counsel notified his staff by phone and then returned to his office.
Plaintiff's counsel was at the courthouse for the ESP along with plaintiff and defendant. When defense counsel had not appeared by 10:00 a.m., she called his office and was told that he was running late. Shortly thereafter, she called again and was told that he had been released by the judge and was on his way back to his office. Plaintiff's counsel called defense counsel's office a third time and was successful in actually speaking to him. She asked him to return to the courthouse since both clients were there; however, defense counsel refused. Plaintiff's counsel then advised her adversary that she intended to make a request for counsel fees.
The ex parte application was heard by a judge other than the presiding judge who was in fact out for the day. Plaintiff's counsel set forth the contacts with defense counsel and his office that she had during the morning and requested an award of fees. The judge noted that he had spoken to the presiding judge's secretary "after the call," and knew defense counsel was caught in traffic. However, he noted that the "only people that can grant an adjournment o[n] a matter that's set down for an ESP is either [the presiding judge], who's not here, his secretary . . . or me, the ESP judge." The judge continued, "[I]f [defense counsel] wanted to, he could have gotten a hold of me." Noting that plaintiff's counsel had arrived at the courthouse that morning from Montclair, and that defense counsel's office was in nearby Metuchen, the judge determined defense counsel's excuse for his non-appearance was "inadequate," and he granted the application for counsel fees. Based upon plaintiff's counsel's representations, he awarded her $1100 and entered an order to that effect.
Defense counsel informally attempted to have the judge reconsider by forwarding a letter explaining the reasons for his non-appearance. Plaintiff's counsel responded, and the judge, in a letter dated April 23, denied this informal request, advising defense counsel that he "ha[d] no right to rely on a judge's clerk to allow you out of appearing." Noting defense counsel failed to advise his adversary, the judge concluded defense counsel's call to the law clerk was "nothing more than an excuse . . . for not showing up." The judge refused to reconsider the sanction.
Defendant thereafter moved for reconsideration by formal motion. Plaintiff's counsel filed a certification in opposition that simply noted that no one had contacted her on behalf of defendant on the morning of the ESP, and it was only upon calling defense counsel's office that she became aware of any problem. Oral argument on the motion was waived by defendant, and the judge issued his opinion on the record on June 8, 2007.
After reviewing the facts, the judge noted
[B]asically the problem here . . . is common civility.  [S]omewhere along the way, this has been lost.
 [W]hen I practiced when I needed a favor, I didn't call the Court first, I called my adversary first. And when the adversary either refused to or wouldn't go along with it, then I went to the Court and I gave ...