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A New Jersey appeals court reinstated a malpractice claim Thursday against Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus and a pension specialist, saying the plaintiff kept alive her right to sue by objecting to the outcome of her matrimonial case. The court relied on a 1992 state Supreme Court ruling that a malpractice claim can proceed even if the client accepts a settlement that could have been considered fair. The Appellate Division’s unpublished ruling in Schachter, Trombadore, Offen, Stanton & Pavics v. Peters, A-3174-06, rejected the Somerville, N.J., firm’s argument that the client’s claims were barred by collateral estoppel because she had exhausted her attempts to amend the final judgment of divorce and qualified domestic relations order (QDRO). Trudi Peters retained Michael Stanton, of Schachter, Trombadore, Offen, Stanton & Pavics in Bridgewater, N.J., in her divorce from John Thornton Jr. The firm merged later with Norris McLaughlin in 2005. Stanton persuaded Hunterdon County Superior Court Judge Marilyn Rhyne Herr to appoint pension specialist William Troyan of Sarasota, Fla., to draft the qualified domestic relations order. Peters later dropped Stanton and retained Warren, N.J., solo Peter Fallon. Even though Fallon had concerns about Troyan’s determination of how much of Thornton’s pension Peters deserved, he was swayed by Herr’s confidence in Troyan. In her malpractice suit, Peters said Stanton’s delays contributed to her substantial monetary loss; Stanton was negligent in bringing Troyan into the case; and Troyan was negligent in deciding her share. Superior Court Judge Peter Buchsbaum dismissed the malpractice claim, based on Puder v. Buechel, 183 N.J. 428 (2005). There, the New Jersey Supreme Court said clients who attest to the fairness of matrimonial settlements and then renounce them cannot sustain malpractice claims. But Appellate Division Judges Mary Catherine Cuff, Joseph Lisa and Marie Lihotz said Buchsbaum should have relied on Ziegelheim v. Apollo, 128 N.J. 250 (1992). There, the court allowed a claim to go forward even though the client accepted a settlement that could have been considered fair. The fact that a party receives a fair settlement “does not mean necessarily that the party’s attorney was competent or that the party would not have received a more favorable settlement had the party’s incompetent attorney been competent, ” the appeals court said, quoting Ziegelheim. The judges said Peters was given no realistic power to reject Troyan’s appointment and the QDRO. And under Ziegelheim, the appeals court said, it is incorrect to hold that the prior litigation resolved whether the QDRO effectuated the intent of the parties. “[C]ollateral estoppel does not bar Peters’ actions against her former attorney and Troyan,” the judges added. Peters’ malpractice attorney, Montclair, N.J., solo Christina Thomas, says there was no informed consent, so collateral estoppel cannot apply. Neither the firm’s lawyer, Morristown, N.J., solo William Voorhees Jr., nor Troyan’s lawyer, Mark Tallmadge of Florham Park, N.J.’s Bressler, Amery & Ross, returned calls.

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