Trial Judge Abused Discretion With Blanket Fee Award

In the Matter of the Estate of Jeane C. Simon, Deceased, 2018 WL 1936830, A-2490-15T2, A-2763-15T2, A-2873-15T2, A-2874-15T2 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. April 25, 2018).

Multiple proceedings occurred over four years, dealing with overlapping disputes as to an estate and a guardianship.

The focus on appeal was the trial court’s awards of counsel fees and costs. The Appellate Division noted that it would disturb a trial court’s rulings in this respect only because of a clear abuse of discretion.  The appeals court also explained that in probate and guardianship actions, the lodestar method is to be used to calculate counsel fees – i.e., a reasonable hourly charge multiplied by the number of hours reasonably expended.  The reasonableness of fee involves consideration of the factors under New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(a). Id. at *12.

The appeals court concluded that the trial judge abused her discretion with a blanket fee award. The trial court correctly set a reasonable hourly rate for attorney fees under the circumstances of the case.  However, she decided to award barely a fraction of the time spent on the litigation; that was an unreasonable determination and an abuse of discretion. The trial judge made no specific findings as to why her blanket award or the number of hours she determined was a reasonable number.  Further, she made no findings as to the reasonableness of the fees of each firm or attorney.  The record also contained few references to the value of the estate or the cost to meet the needs of the ward of the guardianship. Id. at *13.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded, directing the trial court to reconsider the fee awards and provide the required statement of reasons.