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Last year, an appeals court shook New Jersey’s matrimonial bar by ruling that a lawyer withdrawing from a divorce case had to pay his $10,000 earned retainer to the court so the client could hire new counsel. But a year later, when an Essex County judge on Feb. 1 terminated Annette Fischer’s 53-year marriage, she had no lawyer and no one — not even she — was in the courtroom on her behalf. It was not the result that Superior Court Judge Richard Camp, or the Appellate Division that affirmed him, had intended. Their purpose was to ensure that Fischer not be left unrepresented in a divorce case that had dragged on for a decade. How then did Camp wind up ruling on the divorce with only her husband, Dr. Harold Fischer, and his lawyer present? It was not that Annette Fischer’s prior lawyer, Elliot Gourvitz, failed to comply. Last April 15, after Camp denied his request for a stay, he sent the judge two checks totaling $10,000. One check, for $2,500, was made out to Rosenfarb Winters, an accounting firm appointed by Camp in 2004 to value Dr. Fischer’s medical practice. Dr. Fischer had paid $5,000 toward the firm’s fees but Annette Fischer had not yet paid anything. The second check, for $7,500, had a blank line for the payee, to be filled in with the name of whoever replaced Gourvitz. Camp, in his April 11 order denying a stay, ordered Fischer “to immediately retain new counsel and have that counsel contact the court.” Camp wrote Fischer on April 27, saying he would hold the $7,500 check until she retained new counsel. Last week, Camp said he was still waiting for Fischer to retain new counsel. Fischer says she has tried to find a lawyer but has been hampered by Camp’s decision to pay part of the money to the accountants and hold onto the $7,500. Fischer declines to identify the lawyers she spoke with, but she says they were reluctant to take the case because “they didn’t like the idea that they had to go to the judge and get the check from the judge.” They might also have been unwilling because $7,500 is not enough money, given the age and nature of the case, she acknowledges. One lawyer who declined to step in is Steven Lang, a Denville solo who represents Fischer on a contingency basis in a separate case against her husband, Fischer v. Fischer, UNN-C-218-00. Lang is trying to collect a $930,000 judgment, most of it from a 2001 verdict that included $250,000 in punitive damages. It was awarded by Judge Lawrence Weiss, who found that Dr. Fischer deliberately and maliciously destroyed a business in which both Fischers had an interest, in order to escape his obligations to her. After Lang wrote a few letters to Camp and to Dr. Fischer’s lawyer, Robert Rich, on Annette Fischer’s behalf, he found himself dragged into the divorce. Summoned to a hearing on Nov. 4, 2005, Lang showed up, but only after telling Camp in writing, “I do not, cannot and will not represent Mrs. Fischer in any aspect of the matrimonial matter, as I have no expertise in that area of law.” Rich, a Verona, N.J., solo, even asked Camp to transfer Lang’s case from Union to Essex County and consolidate it with the divorce action, but Camp refused. The case was scheduled for trial last July but was postponed after Annette Fischer, 77, was hospitalized for congestive heart failure for five days in June. Her physicians have advised Camp that her condition is precarious and she cannot handle the stress of going to court. In response, Dr. Fischer asked for his wife’s medical records. Camp ordered her to release them, but Fischer did not. She says she is unwilling, absent assurance that the records would be kept private by in-camera inspection or other means. During the Nov. 4 hearing, at which Lang appeared for Fischer, Camp said he would take the unusual step of bifurcating the case: trying the divorce on Feb. 1 but postponing an equitable-distribution ruling until Fischer’s health improved. At the Feb. 1 hearing, Camp said he was still holding the $7,500, waiting for Fischer to retain new counsel but “she has chosen not to do so.” He also noted that her medical problems had delayed trial of the case but remarked she was well enough to correspond with the court and to file an emergent appeal just the day before. That appeal, which sought to stop Camp from allowing Dr. Fischer to cease paying for life insurance to benefit Annette Fischer, was denied as premature. Camp proceeded to grant a mutual divorce, saying the 79-year-old Dr. Fischer was entitled to closure. He then addressed the life insurance issue. After Dr. Fischer had testified that the cost of the term insurance would jump in 2006 from $1,200 to $6,000 a month, Camp allowed him to drop the policies but offset that by increasing the monthly support he must pay Fischer. Based on Dr. Fischer’s testimony that he was paying half of his gross income, the $1,200 in premiums plus $300 to $500 a month, Camp increased the obligation to $800 monthly or half his gross income, whichever is greater. Though Camp said he was removing the case from his docket, he preserved the rights of the parties regarding equitable distribution. He also said he would require Fischer to have her doctors report on her status every six months, starting June 1. Fischer feels her financial rights were not protected at the Feb. 1 hearing, where Camp ruled on the life insurance based on uncontested assertions by her now ex-husband. She contends he is concealing assets and that she has documents to prove it. Weiss’ findings in the Union County case bolster her position, she says. Fischer also points to a 1996 consent order in which her former husband agreed to pay support of $8,000 a month. She says he stopped paying it years ago, though the order was never vacated. But Fischer had no one to make those arguments for her last week in Camp’s courtroom, as the appeals court intended. In response to a query about the $7,500, Camp said he would hold the check for “a reasonable period of time” but return it to Gourvitz if Fischer does not retain counsel. STATE BAR OPPOSED DISGORGEMENT The State Bar Association had been roiled by Camp’s 2004 disgorgement ruling and had filed an amicus brief urging its reversal. The appeals judges, in Fischer v. Fischer, 375 N.J. Super. 278 (2005), had affirmed Camp because they found he had inherent equity power to compel return of fees paid to Gourvitz so long as he were free to recoup any fees owed him from the equitable distribution award to Fischer. The court also found authority in R. 5:3-5(d)(2), which requires leave of court to withdraw within 90 days before trial, and cited such factors as the case’s age and difficulty, the impending trial date, Fischer’s lack of resources, her use of several previous lawyers and an improper retainer agreement. Bonnie Frost, who wrote the brief and now chairs the State Bar’s Family Law Section, says it’s understandable that Camp would want to move the case along but also that Fischer, who “cried out for representation,” would have a hard time finding it with a retainer of only $7,500. “I don’t want to say it’s a drop in the bucket, but it probably is,” says Frost, of Einhorn Harris Ascher Barbarito Frost & Ironson in Denville. A lawyer coming into the case would face a daunting task to get up to speed, she adds. “Attorneys are just not jumping into a case like that.” However, fears that other judges would emulate Camp have not been realized, Frost says. Since the Fischer divorce was filed in 1995, there have been a series of lawyers on both sides, as well as several judges on the case. In 1995, Fischer was seriously injured in a fall at her Short Hills home and accused her husband of pushing her down the stairs. Dr. Fischer was indicted for aggravated assault, but after several mistrials, the charges were dropped, with Dr. Fischer agreeing to enter a pretrial intervention program. Gourvitz, a Short Hills, N.J., solo, did not return calls seeking comment.

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