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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In its December 14, 2016 decision in Piza v. Baez-Piza, the Appellate Division, Second Department, stated that a father was required to prove a change of circumstances before modifying a prior award of temporary custody. The court also held that where a wife’s attorney did not comply with billing rules, a trial court could not award the wife counsel fees in excess of the retainer amount initially paid by the wife to her attorney.

The parties were married in 1996 and later separated. The husband commenced this action for a divorce in 2010. They have a son, who is now 17 years old.

The parties cross-appealed from their judgment of divorce entered in the Supreme Court, Suffolk County (Marlene L. Budd, J.), that was entered upon a decision after trial of Justice Stephen M. Behar. That decision:

  • awarded the plaintiff custody of the parties’ child;
  • directed the defendant to pay child support in the sum of $293.20 per month;
  • awarded the mother $150 per week for the period of April 26, 2010, through July 11, 2016; and
  • awarded the wife an additional $7,500 in attorney’s fees for legal services provided following an earlier award of $3,500 in attorney’s fees.


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