June 24, 2008
IN THE MATTER OF JOSEPH SCOTT MORRISON, AN ALLEGED INCAPACITATED PERSON.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division-Probate Part, Hunterdon County, Docket No. 42580.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: May 29, 2008
Before Judges Cuff, Lisa and Lihotz.
Following protracted litigation in New Jersey and Florida concerning guardianship of the person and property of Joseph Scott Morrison, we review an order awarding attorneys' fees to the woman who filed the first guardianship action in this State. We affirm.
Catherine S. Bogert filed a verified complaint for appointment of a guardian for Joseph Scott Morrison. Soon thereafter, Morrison's daughter, Cynthia Morrison, filed a complaint for similar relief in Florida. Cynthia Morrison attempted to ignore the New Jersey proceeding. Therefore, litigation proceeded in both states.
In November 2006, Judge Mahon determined that he should defer to the Florida court; however, in November 2007, an appellate court in Florida held that the Florida trial court had abused its discretion when it did not defer to New Jersey to adjudicate the first-filed guardianship petition. The Florida appellate court reversed the orders appointing Morrison's daughter as his guardian and remanded the case to the trial court to enter a stay of the proceeding pending resolution of the guardianship proceeding in this State. When Judge Mahon entered his November 2006 order to defer to the Florida court, he permitted Bogert to submit an application for attorneys fees. By order dated January 25, 2007, Judge Mahon awarded Bogert $79,288.59 for counsel fees and costs.
Following reversal of the Florida guardianship orders, Morrison's daughter filed a verified complaint for guardianship for a non-resident in New Jersey. Judge Mahon entered an order that gave full faith and credit to the June 20, 2006 Florida order that declared Morrison incapacitated, appointed Morrison's daughter as temporary guardian of his person and property, required her to post a $200,000 bond, and declared Bogert an interested person and allowed her to intervene. The guardianship petition filed by Bogert had been dismissed.
Morrison's daughter appeals from the January 25, 2007 order granting attorneys' fees to Bogert. The cross-appeal filed by Bogert from the November 22, 2006 deferral order is moot and has been withdrawn.
Cynthia Morrison argues that the fee award to Bogert is unauthorized by law and excessive. Bogert responds that the award is authorized by law and the quantum of the award is attributable to the litigation strategy employed by Cynthia Morrison.
Cynthia Morrison argues that the Chancery Division did not have jurisdiction to award attorneys' fees to Bogert and that such award was not authorized by statute or rule. Specifically, Cynthia Morrison contends that because Judge Mahon deferred to the Florida trial court on grounds of comity prior to the award of counsel fees, he no longer had jurisdiction over the matter. She also argues that the Chancery Division lacked authority to award Bogert fees under Rule 4:86-4(e) because Bogert was not the prevailing plaintiff in the guardianship action. Finally, Cynthia Morrison argues that the award should be reversed because it was grossly excessive.
As noted, an appellate court in Florida recognized that the Chancery Division had primary jurisdiction of this matter. In addition, the procedural journey of this case supports a finding that Bogert was a de facto prevailing party, who is entitled to counsel fees.
Rule 4:86-4(e) provides "[t]he compensation of the attorney for the party seeking guardianship, appointed counsel, and of the guardian ad litem, if any, may be fixed by the court to be paid out of the estate of the alleged mentally incapacitated person or in such other manner as the court shall direct." See R. 4:42-9(a)(3) (providing the court may allow a fee in accordance with R. 4:86-4(e)). Paragraph (e) of this rule was amended effective September 2006 and the phrase "attorney for the party seeking guardianship" was added in response to In re Landry, 381 N.J. Super. 401, 409-10 (Ch. Div. 2005). Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment on R. 4:86-4 (2008). The rule was amended "to make clear that the attorney for a party seeking appointment of a guardian for an alleged mental incompetent is entitled to a counsel fee award." Ibid.; Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 2.3 on R. 4:42-9 (2008).
In Landry, supra, Judge William C. Todd, III, held that the trial court has the authority to award attorneys' fees to a plaintiff in an action for guardianship of an incapacitated person brought pursuant to Rule 4:86. 381 N.J. Super. at 409. He based this finding on the Supreme Court's promulgation of a form model judgment, which implied authorization for such an award. Ibid. In determining when such an award would be appropriate, the judge stated, "This court is not convinced it has the authority to award fees except in those cases where it is determined that the individual in question is incapacitated and where a guardian is appointed." Id. at 409-10. The judge stated further, "This court sees no basis for concluding that there is any authorization for an award of fees when the plaintiff is not successful in establishing incapacity and the need for a guardianship." Id. at 410.
Cynthia Morrison argues that the finding of incapacity and appointment of a guardian must have occurred within the action instituted by Bogert to allow an award of fees. Judge Mahon held that the limitation expressed in Landry does not absolutely bar Bogert from receiving counsel fees because this case presents issues that were not present in Landry. Here, Bogert and Cynthia Morrison were both plaintiffs in competing guardianship actions. Bogert filed her action first, but the foreign jurisdiction in which Cynthia Morrison filed her subsequent action entered an order of incapacity first, and did so with information that a similar action was pending in this State. Principles of comity required that the Florida court should have deferred to the New Jersey proceeding. When the Florida trial court did not do so, Judge Mahon was forced to defer to the Florida court on the matter. When the action was reinstated by Cynthia Morrison's new verified complaint in New Jersey after the Florida appeals court reversed the Florida trial court orders, the Florida court order regarding incapacity was adopted by the Chancery Division. The result of this convoluted procedural history is that the relief sought and initiated by Bogert was eventually granted, albeit in the action filed by Cynthia Morrison.
In other words, Bogert's guardianship action was the catalyst for the ultimate conclusion of these proceedings. The unique procedural history of this case provided Judge Mahon with a set of circumstances in which there was a basis for awarding fees to Bogert. But for Cynthia Morrison's actions in defiance of the New Jersey proceeding, Bogert would have successfully accomplished her goal of appointment of a guardian for Joseph Scott Morrison.
Having determined that Judge Mahon had the jurisdiction and authority to award attorneys' fees to Bogert, we review the amount of the award. Judge Mahon was required to consider the reasonableness of the fees requested, Bogert's motivation in pursuing a guardianship action, and the financial circumstances of the parties involved. Landry, supra, 381 N.J. Super. at 410.
The judge found that there was evidence that Bogert brought the guardianship action with the well-being of Morrison in mind. Bogert consistently pursued the appointment of a guardian who would protect and foster Morrison's best interests. The judge also found that Morrison's estate was substantial and able to pay attorneys' fees. These findings are adequately supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence and should not be disturbed on appellate review. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974).
Moreover, a trial court's determination of a fee award will generally be disturbed only when there is a clear abuse of discretion. Packard-Bamberger & Co. v. Collier, 167 N.J. 427, 444 (2001). Cynthia Morrison argues that this award was excessive because many of the fees charged were for Bogert's sole benefit and did not advance Morrison's interests. This argument not only mischaracterizes the impetus for the attorneys' fees incurred by Bogert, but also ignores that Cynthia Morrison's conduct caused the fees to rise to such an extent. As recognized by Judge Mahon, $79,288.59 is a higher amount than is typically awarded in these types of cases. However, this was not a typical case and many of the costs incurred by Bogert were due to Cynthia Morrison's intransigence and defiance of the New Jersey proceeding.
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