On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Essex County, Docket No. C-331-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Parrillo, Alvarez and Skillman.
This is an appeal, by leave granted, from an order entered on August 3, 2010, which disqualified the attorney for defendants/third-party plaintiffs from continuing to represent them, and an order entered on November 16, 2010, which denied a motion for reconsideration of the order disqualifying that attorney.
The underlying action, which was filed on December 29, 2008, more than a year-and-a-half before the disqualification of the defendants' attorney, involves a dispute concerning a December 7, 2008 election of officers of defendant Anambra-Enugu State Association of N.J., Inc. (AESA), which is described in the preamble to its bylaws as consisting of "citizens of Anambra/Enugu States residing in New Jersey" organized to pursue "their common desire to preserve and promote their cultural heritage of Igbos of Nigeria living in the United States." The individual defendants are members of AESA who were elected as officers in the December 7, 2008 election. The plaintiffs are other members of AESA who claim the election was improperly conducted and that the results are therefore invalid.*fn1
Plaintiffs' complaint sought to (1) invalidate the AESA elections held on December 7, 2008 and order new elections to be administered by a court-appointed officer; (2) restrain the individual defendants from having access to AESA's bank accounts; and (3) order the individual defendants to reimburse AESA all funds used to defend this action.
The case was brought before the trial court on February 20, 2009 by an order to show cause. The relief plaintiffs sought at that time included the disqualification of Sebastian Ibezim from representing defendants due to an alleged conflict of interest. However, the trial court indicated that if plaintiffs wanted to press the issue of Ibezim's disqualification, they should file a formal motion. Plaintiffs failed to follow through with their request for disqualification by filing such a motion.
On March 27, 2009, Ibezim filed an answer, counterclaim and third-party complaint on behalf of the defendants. The third-party complaint named seven additional members of AESA, including Frank Achebe, as third-party defendants.
Nearly a year later, plaintiffs and defendants filed cross-motions for summary judgment. While the cross-motions for summary judgment were pending, Charles C. Chikezie wrote the court advising of his "entry of appearance" on behalf of plaintiffs. When the parties appeared on March 12, 2010 to argue the summary judgment motions, Ibezim requested to meet with the trial judge in chambers along with Chikezie. While in chambers, Ibezim asserted that Chikezie had a possible conflict of interest because he had represented one of the defendants in several others matters. The trial judge advised Ibezim that if he wanted to press the issue of Chikezie's disqualification, he should file a motion. Thereafter, defendants, represented by Ibezim, filed a motion to disqualify Chikezie from representing the plaintiffs.
Third-party defendant Achebe, who was then appearing pro se, responded by filing a motion to disqualify Ibezim from representing the defendants. Achebe filed a certification in support of this motion, which is quoted and discussed later in this opinion. Ibezim failed to file a certification in opposition to the motion.
The trial court heard the motions to disqualify Chikezie and Ibezim at the same time. The trial judge denied the defendants' motion to disqualify Chikezie, but granted Achebe's motion to disqualify Ibezim and ordered the defendants to obtain new counsel within thirty days.
The defendants filed a motion for reconsideration of the order disqualifying Ibezim. In support of this motion, they submitted a certification by Ibezim that described his relationship to Achebe, which is quoted and discussed later in this opinion. The trial judge denied the motion for reconsideration.
The defendants/third-party plaintiffs then filed a motion for leave to appeal, which we ...