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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