A family court judge charged with ethics infractions admits she sought advice on her own child-support problem from a lawyer who had cases filed in her court, but she denies any complicity in covering up the conflict of interest.
Superior Court Judge Melanie Appleby in Ocean County says she didn’t know that the attorney she consulted, Frank Louis, hid behind the name and letterhead of another lawyer in an attempt to conceal his involvement and preserve his ability to appear before her.
Louis, a well-known matrimonial lawyer in Toms River with nearly 40 years practice, prepared a letter for Appleby on the support dispute and sent it to her ex-husband on Atlantic County lawyer Mark Biel’s letterhead with a forged signature, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct alleged in a Nov. 4 complaint.
In her formal answer, made public Tuesday, Appleby admitted she met with Louis around May 2012 to discuss the support issue, provided him with documents, exchanged e-mails with him and sent edits to the initial draft which he incorporated.
She even acknowledged that they discussed Louis’ concern that if he assisted her, it would create a conflict of interest that would prevent him from having cases before her.
And she admitted that those communications caused a conflict, which led her a few months later to ask Assignment Judge Vincent Grasso to add Louis’ name to her conflicts list.
But Appleby denied knowing that Louis— between his first meeting with her and his sending her a draft of a letter to her ex-husband—had tried to get Biel to take on the matter and that Biel declined because of his heavy workload.
Nor did she know that Louis obtained letterhead from Biel Zlotnick & Feinberg in Northfield, even though she saw the words “Biel Letterhead” in boldface capital letters on the draft and the final version was on official Biel Zlotnick letterhead.
Appleby claims that given her only 11 months on the bench at the time and her complete lack of family law practice before becoming a judge, she did not recognize the name on the draft letter as referring to Biel or his firm.
When she saw the final version, she says she “truly believed” Biel wrote and sent it, even though she had never met him before that and never spoke with him afterwards.
She says she still does not know who signed and sent the letter to Christopher Donahue, her ex-husband.
After receiving the letter, Donahue retained Catherine Tambasco of DeNoia & Tambasco in Toms River. She contacted Biel, who told her he did not represent Appleby and knew nothing about the letter, according to the ACJC. Donahue lodged the ethics complaint.
Appleby notes she went to Grasso of her own volition in September 2012 to have Louis put on her conflicts list.
She admits that before then, she heard matters in two of his cases during June and July of 2012, entering an order of divorce, conducting an early settlement conference, signing a consent order for mediation and ordering the release of medical records Louis sought.
She claims, however, that she “made no independent findings nor decided any contested issues,” since the parties were in agreement in each instance.
She asks for the chance to submit evidence “in explanation or mitigation” and to request the sealing of any materials relating to personal, family, medical or other confidential information.
Appleby is charged with violating 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 to 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 judicial duties (Canons 5A(1), 5A(2) and 5A(3)).
By not taking herself off Louis’ cases right away, she also allegedly violated Canon 3C(1)’s requirement for disqualification where a judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned because of a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or lawyer.
Biel comments that, like Appleby, he does not know for certain who drafted and sent the letter but “it wasn’t me nor any member of my law firm.” He also states that he has never met or spoken with Appleby or appeared before her.
During an earlier interview, shortly after the ACJC complaint was filed, Biel also stated that given his busy schedule he believed Louis—whom he described as a “longstanding friend and colleague” —would expedite things by outlining the facts in a draft letter, following which Biel would speak with Appleby and possibly be retained as her lawyer. That “never happened,” he added.
Louis, of Louis & Judge, is a past chairman of the State Bar Association’s Family Law Section and a member of the Supreme Court Family Part Practice Committee from 1982 to 2011.
He referred a request for comment to his attorney, Justin Walder of Walder Hayden & Brogan in Roseland, who says, “Mr. Louis has and will continue to cooperate fully with the ethics authorities.”
Appleby’s ethics counsel, Guy Ryan of Secare & Ryan in Toms River, declines comment.
Appleby was a Toms River councilwoman and practiced municipal law when appointed to the bench by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011.