The prospective husband’s attorney who drafted a couple’s prenuptial agreement was not disqualified from representing the husband in the couple’s divorce action, nor in the action to set aside the prenuptial agreement that had been joined for trial. So held the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its August 15, 2018 decision in Lombardi v. Lombardi. Moreover, it was held that an interim award of counsel fees to the wife was improper.

In 2004 the parties entered into a prenuptial agreement setting forth their rights and obligations in the event of a divorce. The wife commenced this action for a divorce in 2011.

Approximately one year later, the wife commenced a separate action to set aside the prenuptial agreement on the grounds of duress, coercion, undue influence, and unconscionability, and to recover damages for legal malpractice against the husband’s attorney, Dorothy Courten, who had drafted the prenuptial agreement on the husband’s behalf.

On a prior motion, Supreme Court, Suffolk County, Justice Hector D. LaSalle granted the husband’s motion to dismiss the complaint in the second action. On appeal, the Second Department modified that order by denying those branches of the motion which were to dismiss the causes of action alleging fraudulent inducement against the husband and seeking to set aside or rescind the prenuptial agreement on the basis of duress, coercion, undue influence, and unconscionability (see, Lombardi v. Lombardi, 127 A.D.3d 1038, 7 N.Y.S.3d 447 [2015]). However, the award of summary judgment dismissing the complaint insofar as asserted against Ms. Courten was affirmed.

Thereafter, the wife moved to consolidate this divorce action with the second action, to disqualify Ms. Courten and her law firm from representing the husband, and for an award of interim counsel fees. Justice James F. Quinn joined the two actions for trial, disqualified Ms. Courten and her law firm from representing the husband, and awarded the wife $10,000 interim counsel fees.


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In a lengthy, thoughtful August 29, 2017 opinion in S.M. v. M.R., Richmond County (Staten Island) Supreme Court Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico resolved the financial issues incident to the parties’ divorce. Among the issues were those that arose from parties’ family and financial ties to Egypt, the absence of proof on various financial matters, and the wife’s 1999 medical degree in Egypt, all but abandoned since moving to the United States in 2002 resulting in her current need for rehabilitative maintenance.

The final issue tackled by the Court was the wife’s request for an award of counsel fees in the sum of $43,000 for her attorney’s handling of the entirety of this divorce proceeding. The wife based her claim upon the fact that she was the non-monied spouse in this action (D.R.L. §237[a]). In support of her claim, the wife submitted a copy of her attorneys’ retainer agreement, together with legal billing.

The husband objected to any award on the basis of the language of that retainer agreement: the wife and her attorney had agreed to “cap” counsel fees at the sum of $10,000.

You agree to pay Your Attorney for legal services at the rate of $250.00 per billable hour and $750.00 per each half-day appearance in Court by Steven Scavuzzo Esq. The foregoing rates are valid for services rendered in calendar years 2013 and 2014. In the event that such rates are modified you will be advised and requested to execute an amendment reflecting the new rates. Legal fees in this matter shall be capped at $10,000, not including costs, disbursements, post-judgment enforcement and any appeal You wish to pursue.”

The husband argued that this cap should inure to his benefit; that as the wife can never be charged more than $10,000 for the divorce proceeding, as a matter of law he cannot be responsible for any more than that amount. The wife’s attorney should be prohibited from seeking an award of counsel fees by the clear language of his own retainer agreement


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Legal feesIn its May 1, 2015 decision in Mura v. Mura, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, affirmed an order of Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger that enforced an ex-wife’s attorney’s charging lien against a fund from which child support arrears were to be paid.

The parties were divorced in 1993. The Monroe County judgment of divorce awarded the wife child support and ordered the husband to pay $25,226.72 in child support arrears that had accrued from the commencement of the divorce action through entry of the judgment.

For 16 years, the child support obligation was not enforced. In April 2011, the wife hired Mark Chauvin Bezinque, Esq., to recover the accumulated child support arrears that, with interest, totaled $549,403.62 as of September 2011.

At the time, the husband owned real property in Ontario County. Bezinque filed the judgment in Ontario County and commenced actions in both Ontario County and Monroe County to restrain the sale of the Ontario property. While those proceedings were ongoing, the husband sold the property in violation of a court order. Upon Bezinque’s motion, the husband’s share of the proceeds from the sale of the home was placed in escrow “in anticipation of a final judgment for unpaid child support.” Bezinque referred the wife to another law firm for the preparation of executions and levies against the escrowed funds held by the husband’s then attorneys, and requested payment of the outstanding balance of his legal fees from those funds. The wife did not respond to that request. Bezinque thereafter moved by order to show cause seeking, inter alia, a charging lien pursuant to Judiciary Law § 475 against the escrowed funds sufficient to cover his outstanding fees. The wife opposed Bezinque’s motion.


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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].


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The alleged failure of the mediator and the husband’s counsel to advise the husband that a court need not apply the C.S.S.A. formula to the husband’s entire agreed-upon income of $1,200,000.00 per year income is not a basis to set aside a divorce settlement agreement, or its $29,500.00 per month child support obligation. So held Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Lawrence H. Ecker in his January 16, 2014 opinion in A.B. v. Y.B.

The couple involved separated after 12 years of marriage. Following three years of mediation, the parties entered into an agreement that resolved issues of custody and access to the parties’ three children, maintenance, child support, and equitable distribution. The husband is a 50% equity partner in a brokerage firm. The wife is owner and operator of her own business.

Upholding the agreement, Justice Ecker took pains to quote several of its provisions. One acknowledged that the parties had waived the “compulsory financial disclosure” requirements of the Domestic Relations Law and court rules, and agreed not to exchange Net Worth Statements. Nonetheless, the parties represented to each other that each made a full and complete disclosure of assets, liabilities, income and expenses, and that they relied on the information provided.

The agreement recited the husband’s disclosure, to the best of his knowledge, of his gross personal 2010 income as approximately $156,427.00. The parties agreed to use the 2010 income because their 2011 income was not yet available. The Husband disclosed that in no event was his income from any and all sources more than $156,427.00 in said year.

Nonetheless, for purposes of the agreement, the parties agreed to use an imputed income of$1,200,000 in computing the child support calculation under the Child Support Standards Act.

The parties acknowledged that they reached their agreement with the aid of the mediator, but that the mediator provided no legal representation to either of the parties. Further, although “the mediator may have provided information or opinions concerning the state of the law generally, neither party has relied upon such information or opinions in executing this Agreement.”

The parties further represented that each had ample opportunity to obtain independent legal counsel, and counsel [apparently recommended by the mediator] for each spouse was named.

As to the basic child support obligation, the agreement provided it was agreed that the the husband’s would pay $29,500 per month [$354,000 per year] for 12 years, 5 months, subject to a cost of living increase biennially. The husband was further responsible for 100% of discretionary expenses and add-on expenses, including private school tuition for all three children, private college expenses, camp and summer programs, religion education expenses, Bar and Bat Mitzvah expenses, health insurance and unreimbursed medical expenses.


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Gavel main.jpgNot every representation of one spouse during a marriage will disqualify an attorney from representing the other spouse in the couple’s divorce. Such was the holding of the Second Department in its December 5, 2012 in Gabel v. Gabel. In doing so, the appellate court reversed Richmond County Supreme Court Justice Barbara Irolla Panepinto

Update: In a decision issued December 6, 2012, the Appellate Division, Third Department, disbarred Mr. Melendez for his failure to disclose to the Committee on Professional Standards his child support arrears and other related misconduct:

Respondent is guilty of very serious professional misconduct. He exhibited a lack of candor on his application for admission.

Collaborative Practice Logo.jpgMonica and Mitchell Mandell were married in 1998. They have three children. After Mr. Mandell moved out last year, his wife retained attorney Ellen Jancko-Baken to represent her. Ms. Mandell was interested in pursuing the “Collaborative Law” process.

After three perhaps “preliminary” meetings, the contemplated Collaborative Process fell apart. Ms. Mandell used her same attorney to commence a divorce action. Her husband, then, looked to disqualify his wife’s lawyer, claiming such representation was barred by the rules of Collaborative practice.

As noted by Westchester Supreme Court Justice Alan D. Scheinkman in his June 28, 2012 decision in Mandell v. Mandell, the Collaborative Process is a form of dispute resolution in which the parties retain counsel specially trained in collaborative law and enter into a contract to negotiate a settlement without involving the Court.

As Justice Scheinkman noted, one of the principal features of the Collaborative Process is that, if the matter is not resolved, the attorneys who represented the parties in the unsuccessful effort to reach a settlement may not thereafter represent the parties in contested litigation. Among other benefits, this hallmark of the process:

  • eliminates pre-litigation posturing;
  • provides clients with a greater degree of influence in candid negotiations in which the clients participate directly;
  • motivates the parties to continue working toward a mutually agreeable resolutiont due to the prospective expense of having to hire new lawyers if the matter has to go to court;
  • makes it clear that counsel are committing themselves to the process of dispute resolution by having counsel agree to absent themselves from any future litigation;
  • gives counsel an economic incentive to stick with the process;
  • discourages counsel from abandoning the process since their role, and their fees, would end; and
  • conversely, provides counsel with no personal monetary incentive to encourage litigation.

In light of his wife’s interest in using the Collaborative Process, the husband retained Neil Kozek. Both Ms. Jancko-Baken and Mr. Kozek are members of the International and New York Associations of Collaborative Professionals.


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Blank Check iStock_000013161843XSmall.jpgWith the addition on August 13, 2010 of D.R.L. §170(7), making New York the 50th state to grant no-fault divorces, Governor Patterson also signed an amendment to D.R.L. §237. That amendment creates a rebuttable presumption that while a divorce action is pending, the “less monied” spouse shall be awarded counsel and expert fees and expenses