In a 3-1 decision on February 4, 2015 in Cohen v. Cohen, the Second Department disqualified a prominent Long Island matrimonial firm from representing the wife in this 2011 divorce action.

It was disputed whether in November 2010 the husband had consulted Steven J. Eisman, senior partner in Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Einiger, LLP. The husband was unable to substantiate his allegation that he consulted with Mr. Eisman. Mr. Eisman stated that while the husband had scheduled an appointment for a consultation, he canceled it. Mr. Eisman further asserted that the husband had consulted with various top matrimonial attorneys in the area to prevent the wife from hiring an attorney.

However, it was not disputed that the husband’s brother met with Mr. Eisman in July, 2010. The brother stated that he had shared with Mr. Eisman confidential information concerning various businesses the husband and his brother owned and in which they shared common interests. This included detailed information concerning the day-to-day operations of the businesses which he operated jointly with the husband, illustrated by a diagram, described how the businesses earned a profit, and provided his opinion as to the value of the businesses. Mr. Eisman acknowledged that he had discussed with the husband’s brother “surface details” concerning, among other things, the husband’s brother’s employment, the brother’s marriage, residence, and children.

The brother (and obviously the husband) never retained the law firm as his counsel. The wife did. The husband moved to disqualify Mr. Eisman’s firm.

The Second Department first noted that the disqualification of an attorney is generally a matter resting within the sound discretion of the court. In his ruling below, Supreme Court Justice Norman Janowitz had denied that motion.

Nonetheless, the Second Department reversed, noting “doubts as to the existence of a conflict of interest must be resolved in favor of disqualification so as to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.” The appellate court held that here, Justice Janowitz should have granted the husband’s motion to disqualify the law firm. Given the undisputed evidence of the consultation between Mr. Eisman and the husband’s brother, as well as the nature of the matters disclosed there was a resulting substantial risk of prejudice.

The very appearance of a conflict of interest was alone sufficient to warrant disqualification of the law firm as a matter of law without an evidentiary hearing, and notwithstanding the existence of a factual dispute as to whether Eisman met with the [husband].

Continue Reading Disqualification of Counsel: Is It A Shield Or A Sword?

Two decisions this past month involved joint custody awards despite antagonism between the parents and contested custody proceedings.

In Prohaszka v. Prohaszka, Supreme Court Putnam County Justice Francis A. Nicolai had awarded the divorcing parties joint legal custody of the parties’ children, with the mother having primary physical custody and final decision-making authority. In its February 6, 2013 decision on appeal, the Second Department modified that order to add a provision directing the mother to consult with the father regarding any issues involving the children’s health, medical care, education, religion, and general welfare prior to exercising her final decision-making authority for the children, but otherwise affirmed Justice Nicolai’s order.

Although the antagonism between the parties was evident to the appellate court, it was also apparent that both parties generally behaved appropriately with their children, that they could make parenting decisions together, and that the children were attached to both parents. Under those circumstances, there was a sound and substantial basis in the record for Justice Nicolai to have found that the best interests of the children would be served by awarding the parties joint custody. Similarly, the trial record also supported the determination that primary physical custody should be with the mother and that she should have final decision-making authority.

The court, however, should have directed the plaintiff to consult with the defendant regarding any issues involving the children’s health, medical care, education, religion, and general welfare prior to exercising her final decision-making authority.

In his January 8, 2013 decision in Scott M. v. Ilona M., Kings County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Sunshine awarded the parties joint custody of their son; each parent having access alternating on a weekly basis.

Justice Sunshine did note that a significant factor in determining custody was whether the heated custody dispute, itself, indicated that an award of joint custody would be ineffective. Justice Sunshine cited to the Court of Appeals decision in Braiman v. Braiman, (44 N.Y.2d 584), which rejected joint or shared custody where the parties are in bitter conflict and do not agree to such an arrangement. That decision concluded:

Joint custody is encouraged primarily as a voluntary alternative for relatively stable, amicable parents behaving in mature civilized fashion. As a court ordered arrangement imposed upon already embattled and embittered parents, accusing one another of serious vices and wrongs, it can only enhance familial chaos.

[Question: If the children live primarily with one parent and that parent has final decision-making authority, what does “joint custody” mean? Is it merely a psychological benefit for the parent and the child? Does it entitle the non-primary custodian to make decisions in emergency situations when the other parent is not available? Braiman, itself, noted that “joint”, or, as it is sometimes called “divided”, custody reposes in both parents a shared responsibility for and control of a child’s upbringing. In Bast v. Rossoff, 167 Misc.2d 749, 752 (Sup. Ct. 1995), affd, 239 A.D.2d 106 (1st Dept 1997), affd as mod and remanded, 91 N.Y.2d 723 (1998), it was stated “In New York the term ‘joint custody’ generally is used to refer only to joint legal custody, or joint decision making.”]

Continue Reading Ordering Joint Custody in Contested Divorce Custody Proceedings