A New Jersey family court judge faces discipline for allegedly accepting advice on her own child-support matter from a lawyer with cases before her and acquiescing in a cover-up of the conflict.
Superior Court Judge Melanie Appleby of Ocean County allowed attorney Frank Louis to write a letter to her ex-husband using another lawyer’s letterhead and forged signature, then continued to hear Louis’ cases for months afterward, according to an ethics complaint made public on Wednesday.
Appleby began looking for a lawyer in May 2012 after her former husband, Christopher Donohue, sent her a letter challenging his obligation to keep paying their son’s educational expenses.
Her secretary recommended Louis, of Louis & Judge, a well-known Toms River lawyer with nearly four decades of matrimonial practice. Appleby met with him in chambers on May 8, 2012, to discuss the letter and whether Louis would represent her, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct complaint alleges.
Louis told Appleby he wanted to help but did not want to be added to her conflict list and ended the meeting by saying: “Let me see if I can work something to see whether I can still appear in front of you.” Appleby sent Louis her property settlement agreement with Donohue and exchanged emails and phone calls with him, without consulting another lawyer, according to the ACJC.
Louis then asked Mark Biel, of Northfield’s Biel Zlotnick & Feinberg, if he would represent Appleby. Biel said he was too busy but agreed to send a “basic letter of representation” on Appleby’s behalf and authorized his paralegal to send Louis his law firm stationery to use in drafting the letter for Biel’s review and signature, the ACJC charges.
Louis and Biel allegedly never discussed the matter again.
Instead, the ACJC claims, Louis drafted a response to Donohue’s letter and sent it to Appleby for her review. At the top of the first page, the words “BIEL LETTERHEAD” supposedly appeared in boldface capital letters.
Appleby sent Louis her edits on June 22, 2012, and, after making the changes, he sent the final version to Donohue with a copy to Appleby. It was printed on Biel Zlotnick letterhead with a signature that purported to be Biel’s, even though Biel never reviewed, authorized or signed it and had neither met nor spoken with Appleby, the ACJC charges.
Donohue then retained Catherine Tambasco, of DeNoia & Tambasco in Toms River. She contacted Biel, who said he did not represent Appleby and knew nothing about the letter.
Donohue notified the ACJC.
The complaint alleges that Appleby violated canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct by facilitating or acquiescing in Louis’ attempt to conceal the conflict and consulting with him despite knowing he had cases before her.
She allegedly violated requirements that judges uphold the judiciary’s independence and integrity (Canon 1), avoid impropriety and its appearance (Canon 2A) and conduct extrajudicial activities so as not to put impartiality in question, demean the judicial office or interfere with the judge’s duties (Canons 5A(1), 5A(2) and 5A(3)).
In addition, Appleby’s failure to take herself off Louis’ cases right away allegedly violated Canon 3C(1)’s requirement that a judge disqualify herself where impartiality might reasonably be questioned because of a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or lawyer.
Appleby continued to adjudicate matters involving Louis’ clients until Sept. 4, 2012, when she advised Assignment Judge Vincent Grasso by memo to add Louis to her conflicts list, the ACJC says, identifying two Louis matters in which Appleby heard argument from him, and entered consent orders and an uncontested judgment of divorce in the interim.
Appleby declines comment.
Her counsel in the ethics case, Guy Ryan of Secare & Ryan in Toms River, says only that Appleby “fully cooperated with the investigation and will fully cooperate in the hearing.”
Louis, a past chairman of the State Bar Association’s Family Law Section who served on the Supreme Court Family Part Practice Committee from 1982 to 2011, declines comment.
Biel, for his part, says he thought that if Louis, a longtime friend and colleague, “was going to prepare a letter for my signature, it would be sent to me for review and before I would sign it or send it out on my signature, I would speak with the client and establish an attorney-client relationship. That never happened.”
The “assumption was that nothing would go out until I had the chance to talk to the judge and be retained,” adds Biel, saying he did not see the letter until Tambasco faxed it to him.
Tambasco did not return a call.
Louis and Biel have no disciplinary history.
Asked whether any ethics complaints related to Appleby have been filed against them, judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort says no public information is available about either.
When Gov. Chris Christie appointed her in 2011, Appleby was a Toms River councilwoman who had recently opened her own practice after working at Gilmore & Monahan from 1997 to 2010.
She handled mainly municipal law with some auto insurance defense work, and she had tried only one case, a bench trial.
During her confirmation hearing, several senators expressed concern over her lack of trial experience.