Naugatuck solo David DeRosa ()
A Connecticut lawyer who publicly voiced his concerns about high costs of guardians ad litem services was shocked by the timing of an Appellate Court decision in his own divorce case.
Just one business day after Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a measure that will provide greater oversight of GALs and their fees, the court approved $252,000 in fees for two court-appointed child advocates. Some pro se parents who lobbied for GAL reform said they had been devastated financially by bills that were only a fraction as large.
The appeal was filed by Paul Greenan, a former Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom trusts and estates lawyer who now has a practice in Stamford. He claimed in court documents that the GAL and attorney for minor children appointed in his divorce case collectively spent just four-and-a-half hours with his two children, though that total was in dispute.
Greenan claimed that Melissa Needle, the attorney for minor children from Westport, never met his children, but her portion of the bill was $110,000. The GAL was Westport attorney Eric Broder. Greenan claimed that, among other things, Broder charged the family $625 for an “ice cream visit” with his 12-year-old and 7-year-old children at a Friendly’s restaurant.
Greenan said the trial court erred in ordering payment of the GAL-related bill without ever holding an evidentiary hearing on the reasonableness of the fees.
State Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford, who served on a legislative task force that recommended dramatic reforms to the family court system, said he was “absolutely stunned” by May 12 decision denying Greenan’s appeal.
“Hopefully, our new GAL bill will prevent abuses like this one,” Vargas said. “I’ve been told by several attorneys that currently the Appellate Court will only overturn family court judges for clear violations of law. Everything else falls under the family court judge’s ‘discretion’ and will be upheld even if the order is outlandish.”
The Appellate Court found no reason to overturn the decision of Superior Court Judge Harry Calmar in Middletown, who had previously ordered Greenan and his ex-wife, Suzanne Greenan, to each pay half of the attorney for minor children (AMC) and GAL bills.
Suzanne Greenan’s lawyer, Norman Roberts II of Darien, argued the judgment from the trial court should be upheld. Based on the legal issues raised in the case, he said the ruling was “appropriate.”
Speaking in general terms, Roberts said disputes over GAL costs occur in a small percentage of divorce cases. The cases that do lead to such disputes, he said, typically have more to do with “the litigants than the issues.”
“A lot of times, the fees [for GALs] are very high, and they shouldn’t be,” Roberts said. “But it’s really a reflection of the litigants. If someone is going to insist on having an outcome that is contrary to all of the various advice, whether it’s from a GAL, a AMC, a judge or a special master,” then costs will be driven up.
“They can’t just turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to pay,’” Roberts said.
Broder, the GAL, charged $500 an hour, with a total bill of $142,575. Broder disputed Greenan’s claim that he didn’t earn his money. In previous testimony considered by the Appellate Court, Broder described “the complexity of the case,” which spanned about two years from his appointment as GAL to the trial.
Broder said he interacted with the children, and also met with Greenan “many times.” He noted that he kept up with the case, and explained he didn’t have “extensive meetings with the children because they didn’t want to see me.”
According to court records, Greenan sought to have Broder removed as GAL, which led to the appointment of Needle as AMC. (A GAL is supposed to represent the best interest of the child, while an AMC expresses the child’s desires.)
In an affidavit, Needle said the Greenan divorce “was a very difficult case” that dragged on. She laid out her involvement, including meetings with other lawyers, and reviewing reports from medical professionals, emails, pleadings and court transcripts. She also spent “some time” with the minor children, the Appellate Court noted.
In affirming the trial court ruling, Appellate Judge Robert Beach Jr. explained that an abuse of discretion claim, such as the one brought by Greenan, can be only granted if an Appellate Court determines that the “trial court could not reasonably have concluded as it did.”
The law, Beach said, gives trial judges “broad discretion in domestic relations matters.”
“In light of the length and complexity of the trial, the protracted and adversarial nature of the proceedings on the whole, and the testimony of Broder and Needle as to the work performed, we are not pursuaded that the court abused its discretion,” the Appellate Court ruled.
Greenan declined to be interviewed for this article. But his lawyer, Naugatuck solo David DeRosa, said Greenan and his family were “shocked and saddened” by the lack of compassion shown by the court system, and it’s “condoning of the astronomical fees.” They are considering asking the Connecticut Supreme Court for review.
In January, Greenan was among 59 individuals who testified during a 14-hour hearing before the family court task force. In the end, the General Assembly focused on GAL costs and gave parents some input as to their children’s GAL. Vargas, who served on the task force was Vargas, said the bill signed by Malloy, which goes into effect in July, “is a good beginning.”
“It also sends a message to the family courts and to the administrative judges that failure to reform the system will lead to more legislative intervention,” Vargas said. “Hopefully, this will be an incentive for the family court system to police its own ranks.”
Under the new law, people involved in a divorce or custody case can request a specific guardian ad litem or counsel for minor children be appointed, or choose one from a court-provided list of 15 options. Judges must provide specific information when GAL or AMC are appointed, such as the duties involved, length of the appointment and fee schedule.
The law also allows people to request that the guardian ad litem or counsel for minor children in their case be removed, and directs the Judicial Branch to develop a hearing process to address those requests. The new law did not set a cap for GAL fees, which some advocates had sought.
DeRosa, who represented Greenan in the appeal, acknowledged that the new law won’t address specific issues that arose in Greenan’s case.
“The new law deals with what’s in the front of the case, not after it’s over,” DeRosa said. “The rules seem to address what you can do when the case is pending, gives you some options to pick from a list of 15 guardians ad litem. But what about when the battle is over and the parent is upset about what happened? What happens then? To say that the GAL never saw the kids, I think that type of claim needs to be taken seriously. If someone is appointed and being paid, I don’t think those concerns are something that should be glossed over.” •