A New Jersey appeals court on Monday upheld an award of more than $186,000 in attorney fees to the owner of a Montclair office building and his accountant, who have been embroiled in a dispute with a former tenant for a decade.
The three-judge Appellate Division panel said an Essex County Superior Court judge did not abuse her discretion when she awarded the fees to Howard Silver, the owner of 34 Label Street, and his accountant, Emer Featherstone.
Appellate Division Judges Susan Reisner, Richard Hoffman and Robert Gilson, in an unpublished ruling, denied the request from the former tenant, Richard Cecere, to overturn the fee award.
The fees are meant to reimburse Silver, 34 Label and Featherstone for what they paid to Roseland’s McManimon, Scotland & Baumann to fight allegations that they overcharged Cecere and his company, R.C. Search Co., for rent and to regain possession of the space Cecere had leased.
“The ultimate goal in awarding attorney’s fees is to allow reasonable fees that are not excessive,” the judges wrote in the per curiam decision.
Richard Trenk, the attorney representing Silver, 34 Label and Featherstone, welcomed the ruling.
“34 Label Street Associates is pleased that all of its rights and remedies were fully vindicated after nearly eight years of litigation,” said Trenk, of Trenk DiPasquale DellaFera & Sodono in West Orange.
William Northgrave of McManimon Scotland handled the original litigation. He declined to comment.
Cecere’s attorney, Marlo Hittman of Belleville’s Cozzarelli & Hittman, also declined to comment.
In a separate decision, the judges affirmed lower court rulings approving the rescission of the leases and barring another attorney, Frank Cozzarelli, from intervening in the case. Cozzarelli had taken a mortgage and security interest in one of the judgments against Cecere that was extinguished. Neither Cozzarelli nor his attorney, Stephen Dratch of Franzblau Dratch in Livingston, could be reached.
According to the court, Cecere’s relationship with 34 Label Street began in 1993 when he leased office space for his now-defunct company. Three years later, he leased garage space, and in 2002, he signed a 99-year lease for another part of the property where he operated a restaurant, the ruling said.
In 2007, R.C. Search stopped paying rent for the office space, and Cecere stopped paying rent for the garage space. Cecere also stopped paying expenses and property taxes for the restaurant, according to the ruling.
After a trial, a judge in 2011 ordered Cecere to pay $149,468 in unpaid taxes and expenses for the restaurant; $190,501 for the office space; and $22,161 for unpaid rent on the garage space. The judge denied a request for attorney fees, even though the lease agreements for the office and garage spaces contained provisions allowing for the award of counsel fees, according to the decision.
An appeals court affirmed the amount of the judgment, but ordered a remand on the issue of attorney fees.
Superior Court Judge Stephanie Mitterhoff, who heard the case on remand, ordered Cecere and his company to pay 34 Label Street $100,373 in counsel fees for the litigation over the office space and $86,276 in counsel fees for the garage space litigation.
Cecere then appealed that ruling.
“Here, we find no abuse of discretion in the court’s award of attorney’s fees,” the Appellate Division said in affirming. “Given the nature and length of the litigation between Cecere and 34 Label, the attorney’s fees award approved by Judge Mitterhoff was reasonable.”