On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. DC-005742-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and LeWinn.
Defendant Marie Gordon appeals from the order of the trial court entered on August 8, 2007, awarding judgment to plaintiff Judith E. Ball in the amount of $12,830.20. Plaintiff had been defendant's matrimonial attorney. At the conclusion of plaintiff's services, an outstanding balance remained on her fee in the amount of $12,830.20. Defendant declined arbitration, and plaintiff filed suit on March 9, 2007. Defendant, representing herself, filed an answer and "cross complaint" on April 15, 2007, claiming legal malpractice and challenging the amount of the outstanding fee.
On July 18, 2007, the parties appeared for trial. At that time, defendant requested an adjournment in order to hire an attorney and stated that she "would like to file a counterclaim." The judge noted that the case had been filed in March and the discovery period had ended. However, the judge granted a two-week adjournment, and advised defendant: "If you don't retain the services of an attorney, understand though the next time you come back to court there's going to be no more adjournments based on that I need an attorney."
On July 31, 2007, defendant filed a counterclaim stating: "Plaintiff made agregious [sic] and costly errors throughout my case, resulting in ten months of counterproductive procedures and unnecessary legal fees." Plaintiff filed an answer to this counterclaim on August 2, 2007.
The parties appeared for trial on the adjourned date of August 8, 2007. Defendant stated that she had not retained counsel; however, she represented that she had "consulted with an expert witness[,]" and requested an adjournment to enable her expert to review discovery just received from plaintiff. On July 23, 2007, defendant had sent a letter to plaintiff stating:
"[K]indly send me a copy of the judgment from the amended pendente lite motion from April, 2005 as well as copies of the above-listed invoices[.]" Plaintiff sent defendant the requested discovery on August 2, 2007.
The judge denied defendant's request for an adjournment, finding that defendant's July 23, 2007 discovery demand was "not timely." The judge told defendant: "[Y]ou have been dilatory, you've been trying to stall this trial as long as possible. You're going to trial today."
The parties were then referred for trial before another judge.
At the outset of trial, defendant stated that she did not "file a case of malpractice anywhere in [her] complaint." She was not seeking "damages for malpractice." Rather, she "countered for the unnecessary legal fees that [she had] paid for mistakes that [she] can prove here that [plaintiff] has written."
Defendant proffered a letter plaintiff had written to the judge in the matrimonial proceeding, dated June 10, 2005, which stated, in pertinent part:
To be fair to [adversary counsel], I did throw a monkey wrench into the negotiations when on June 1, 2005 I realized that there was a fundamental flaw in the conception of the case. . . .
Previously, I had mistakenly been assuming there was a set off between Mr. Gordon's share of the equity in the marital residence due and his share of the marital mortgage debt. This would have been true if the house was an active, not a passive asset; the marital mortgage amount would have ...