On April 15, 2011, Hunterdon County Sheriff Corporal Sandra Ford delivered a writ of execution to the Wells Fargo Bank at 74 Church Street, Flemington and levied on Hunterdon’s County’s bank accounts. The levy amount, $93,265.37, represented legal fees that the County owes to the South Jersey law firm Friedman & Doherty, LLC of West Berlin.
The County was ordered to pay the $93,265.37 by Superior Court Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone’s February 7, 2011 order that arose out of a class action lawsuit captioned James Gensch et al v. Mary H. Melfi, Hunterdon County Clerk et al, Docket No. HNT-L-307-07.
Gensch’s lawsuit was a class action, filed on May 8, 2007, challenging the 25 cents per page charged by the self service copier machines located in the deeds and mortgages recording room. Gensch alleged that the 25 cents per page was too high and that the County was legally allowed to only collect its actual cost per copy, which Gensch estimated to be 7 cents.
The trial court dismissed Gensch’s complaint on December 22, 2008 and Gensch appealed. The Appellate Division, on February 10, 2010, reversed and held that effective July 1, 1010, the County must reevaluate its actual costs and charge no more that its actual costs of producing a copy. According to the Appellate Division’s decision, the number of copies purchased from the County’s machines between May 2001 and August 2008 was 1,598,563 and, at 25 cents per page, the County collected $399,640.74 for providing copies of those pages.
On April 30, 2010, Gensch and the County entered into a consent judgment in which the County agreed to start charging seven cents per copy effective July 1, 2010.
Thereafter, Friedman & Doherty, Gensch’s attorney, filed a motion seeking to require the County to pay Gensch’s legal fees. According to filed papers, the firm sought $166,255.73 in fees plus a $12,000 award to Gensch. In a March 14, 2011 written opinion, Judge Ciccone started by considering Friedman & Doherty’s request to be paid $350 per hour for 309.3 hours. After removing “unnecessary billings, billings for two attorneys where the task was reasonably allotted to a single attorney, duplicative work, or work which contributed to the litigation of similar cases in other counties,” Judge Ciccone reduced the attorney fee award to $93,265.37 and denied Gensch his requested $12,000 award.
After the award of the attorney fees, the County moved for a stay of the attorney fee award so that the County could appeal the award to the Appellate Division. In its motion, the County argued that the County didn’t have $93,265.37 in its budget and, like other local agencies, was under “extreme financial pressures” and “recently laid off nineteen (19) County employees in order to reduce its spending.” The County’s motion papers also noted that a judge in Hudson County had recently denied Friedman & Doherty attorney fees “on the exact same issue as this matter” and that the firm had appealed the Hudson County judge’s order.
On March 23, 2011, the County filed its Notice of Appeal and on April 1, 2011, Judge Ciccone denied the County’s motion for a stay.
Since nothing legally stood in the way of the February 7, 2011 order that awarded Friedman & Doherty its $93,265.37 in fees, the firm, on April 13, 2011, applied for a writ of execution, which was signed by Judge Ciccone. The writ was then given to the Hunterdon County Sheriff’s office which effected the bank levy.
The County’s lawyer in the Gensch matter is Michael A. DeSapio of Frenchtown. According to the most recent “Hunterdon County Legal Actions Report” on the County’s Internet site, which is dated September 1, 2010, $65,769.82 had been paid to DeSapio’s firm for representation. My Open Public Records Act request for DeSapio’s bills show that the firm has billed the County for an additional $10,869.53 since the most recent “Hunterdon County Legal Actions Report” was prepared.
All of the relevant official documents used in the preparation of this article are on-line here.