The assignment judge for Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties says that posing with lawyers for photos at bar association events is part of her job and will not affect her impartiality in a malpractice case.
Judge Yolanda Ciccone, ruling from the bench on Tuesday, denied a motion for her recusal in a suit against Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus of Somerville and one of its lawyers, Michael Stanton.
Plaintiff Trudi Peters claims she was short-changed by Stanton, who represented her in her divorce while he was with Schachter, Trombadore, Offen, Stanton & Pavics, a Bridgewater firm that merged with Norris in 2005.
The recusal motion, filed by Peters’ current attorney, Montclair solo Christina Thomas, alleged a pattern of intrigue that casts doubt on Ciccone’s impartiality in the case, suggesting she was overtly familiar with Norris — Somerset County’s largest and most influential firm. Schacter Trombadore and Norris McLaughlin “appear to have extremely strong ties to Judge Ciccone,” Thomas said in her brief.
Her motion cited photos of the judge that appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of “The Clarion,” the newsletter of the Somerset County Bar Association. In one photo, the judge was shown issuing the oath of office to Association officers and trustees, including president David Trombadore, formerly of Schacter Trombadore and now with Norris McLaughlin. In a second photo, the judge posed with Trombadore and his family.
Thomas also cited “gratuitous and condescending statements” Ciccone made to her, as well as the “openly disrespectful” tone Ciccone’s law clerk took with Thomas.
In addition, Norris McLaughlin’s attorney, Brian Molloy of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Woodbridge, was permitted to substitute in for the former defense lawyer, William Voorhees of Morristown, without motion, contrary to R. 1:11-2, Thomas said.
And Ciccone’s former law clerk, Louis Seminski Jr., is now with Wilentz, Goldman, Thomas added.
Finally, Thomas said in her motion that Ciccone’s impropriety was demonstrated during a March 6 hearing where the judge “spent a great deal of time looking at” a Norris McLaughlin attorney who was observing from the back of the courtroom.
Thomas also alleged that Ciccone made a “secret backroom transfer” to take the case over from another judge, Stephen Rubin of Hunterdon County. The transfer came after Rubin developed a conflict with a discovery master. But Thomas said the move created an appearance of impropriety, was “arbitrary and capricious” and constituted an unjust act because it violated a requirement in R. 4:3-2 that such moves be accompanied by a hearing and order.
Thomas also moved for a change of venue to Essex County, because the defendants practice in Somerset County, and for a proof hearing regarding the status of third-party defendant William Troyan, a pensions expert in the underlying case who has not been located. Thomas said Troyan should be held in contempt because he closed his post office box, the only means to contact him, with no forwarding address. Peters claims that Troyan was negligent in calculating her share of her husband’s pension and that Stanton was negligent because he hired Troyan.
Without addressing the many other allegations, Ciccone also denied the change of venue motion and summary judgment motions by both sides but granted the motion for a hearing on Troyan.
Ciccone also said she would set a September trial date for the case, which was filed in 2004, but then set that back to December after Thomas said she would need 21 trial days.
Thomas says she is assessing her options.
“Now [Ciccone] is on notice of the stuff that she’s done wrong. I think she had no idea before we wrote it down,” Thomas says.
Molloy says the recusal motion “completely lacked merit and was the desperate act of a litigant who has been on the wrong end of too many motions.”
Molloy added that the allegation about the judge staring at parties in the courtroom were not properly before the court because it was not included in Peters’ certification, and the judge could only rule on documents.
What’s more, says Molloy, who was present on the date in question, “The judge did not stare at anyone. It didn’t happen,. It was complete hooey.”
The malpractice case was dismissed, only to be reinstated by the Appellate Division last August. Superior Court Judge Peter Buchsbaum had dismissed the case because Peters had accepted a settlement, citing Puder v. Buechel , 183 N.J. 428 (2005). There, the Court held that clients who attest to the fairness of marital settlements but later renounce them cannot sustain malpractice claims. But an appellate panel reversed, citing Ziegelheim v. Apollo , 128 N.J. 250 (1992), which held that a claim could go forward even where the client accepted a settlement that could be considered fair.