Melanie Appleby
Melanie Appleby (Tom Spader)

Family court Judge Melanie Appleby has stipulated to conflicts of interest in seeking advice on her own child support problems from a lawyer with cases before her and in continuing to hear his cases for months afterward.

Appleby has not conceded, however, to knowing that the prominent matrimonial attorney she consulted—Frank Louis of Louis & Judge in Toms River—hid behind the name and letterhead of another lawyer in an attempt to conceal his involvement and preserve his ability to appear before her, as charged in an ethics complaint.

The stipulations between Appleby, of Ocean County Superior Court, and Tracie Gelbstein, a lawyer for the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, were made public May 20, in advance of an ACJC hearing scheduled for May 29.

They describe Appleby’s receipt of a May 3, 2012, letter from ex-husband Christopher Donohue, requesting termination of his support obligations for their two children and her secretary’s recommendation of Louis, whom she met with in chambers on May 8, despite being aware he had cases assigned to her.

At the meeting, Louis told her he wanted to help her but did not want that to result in being added to her conflict list, said the stipulation. He allegedly said “let me see if I can work something to see whether I can still appear in front of you.”

After exchanging emails and phone calls, Louis sent her a draft letter to Donohue for review, which she got on June 21, 2012.

She stipulated that she assumed Louis drafted it, even though it was on blank paper, had no address or signature line and at the top of the first page were the capitalized and boldfaced words “BIEL LETTERHEAD.”

The final version Louis sent her on June 26, 2012, was printed on the letterhead of Biel Zlotnick & Feinberg, and purported to be signed by matrimonial attorney Mark Biel, a partner at the firm, located in Northfield, Atlantic County.

Appleby claimed she never met or spoke with Biel.

After receiving the letter, Donohue retained Catherine Tambasco of DeNoia & Tambasco in Toms River, who contacted Biel and was told he did not represent Appleby and knew nothing about the letter, according to the ACJC. Donohue lodged the ethics complaint against his former wife.

On Aug. 13, 2012, Appleby was copied on a letter from Louis to Tambasco advising her he would be representing Appleby on the support issue.

Three weeks later, on Sept. 4, 2012, Appleby advised Assignment Judge Vincent Grasso she had a conflict regarding Louis and he should be placed on her list of lawyers whose cases she cannot hear.

In the interim, Louis appeared before Appleby in two matters: on June 19, Appleby entered a final divorce judgment in Cornick v. Cornick; and on July 17, she entered a consent order for mediation in Kelly v. Kelly.

In her stipulations, Appleby admitted she created a conflict of interest by communicating with Louis about the support issue and accepting his assistance, and also engaged in a conflict by not immediately disqualifying herself from Louis’ cases.

As a result, she is accused of violating Canons 5A (1) and (3), and 1 and 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

The ACJC further alleged that she knew or should have known that Louis’s use of another lawyer’s stationery and signature was an attempt to conceal the conflict, “which concealment she facilitated, or acquiesced in.”

Appleby denied that in her answer last November and did not stipulate to it.

She has also denied knowledge that Louis tried to get Biel—who as a lawyer in a different county would not be so concerned about being on Appleby’s conflict list—to handle the support matter. Biel was very busy but agreed to let Louis draft a “basic letter of representation” on his law firm stationery, according to the complaint.

Biel, who declined comment on Thursday, said in a prior interview that he understood that Louis—a “long-standing friend and colleague”—would outline the facts in a draft letter, after which Biel would speak with Appleby and possibly be retained by her, which never happened.

Appleby’s attorney, Toms River solo Guy Ryan, declined comment, as did Justin Walder, of Roseland’s Walder Hayden, who represents Louis. Tambasco did not return a call for comment.

Louis, who has been practicing family law since 1974, is a past chairman of the State Bar Association’s Family Law Section and was a member of the Supreme Court Family Part Practice Committee from 1982 to 2011.

Contact the reporter at mgallagher@alm.com.