Friday, January 22, 2016

Bergen County lawyer who serves as a member of a local borough council cited in attorney ethics case.

In a December 28, 2015 formal complaint, the Office of Attorney Ethics accused a partner in a Tenafly law firm who also serves as a member of the Cresskill Borough (Bergen County) Council with a conflict of interest and failure to properly supervise an associate.

The ethics complaint is against Gregory K. Mueller, a partner in the Tenafly law firm of Sclar Adler, LLP and the Founding Partner of the Mueller Law Group.  Both Sclar Adler and the Mueller Law Group list their address as 19 Engle Street, Tenafly.

The case against Mueller centers on the Ocean County Superior Court case of Patriot Settlement Resources, LLC v. Richard Heckel, Docket No. OCN-L-1925-14.  This was a "structured settlement" case in which Heckel sought to transfer a string of monthly payments to Patriot in exchange for a single lump sum payment.  The Structured Settlement Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:16-63, enacted in New Jersey in 2001, requires that a judge find that such a transfer is "in the best interest of the payee, taking into account the welfare and support of the payee's dependents" as a prerequisite to approval.

In the Ocean County case, Patriot was represented by Vincent Chirico of Chirico Law, PLLC which also maintains its offices at 19 Engle Street, Tenafly. Chirico is listed as being "of counsel" to both Sclar Adler, LLP and the Mueller Law Group.  According the ethics complaint, Heckel was represented in the Ocean County matter by the Mueller Law Group and Mueller is alleged to be "of counsel" to Chirico Law, PLLC.  Mueller allegedly assigned a new attorney named Paul Egert who had no experience in structured settlements to be "the primary attorney responsible for handling Heckel's matter" before the Ocean County court. (Update 04/18/16: I have placed on-line a separate by related complaint against Mr Chirico as well as his answer.)

Superior Court Judge Craig L. Wellerson was asked to approve an arrangement under which Heckel would get a $300,000 lump sum payment in exchange for assigning over twenty years of monthly payments that, according to the ethics complaint, had a present value of $1,744.501.17.  When Egert asked Mueller about the valuation of the transfer, Mueller allegedly directed Egert to Chirico without telling him about his business relationship with Chirico or that the case was referred by Chirico to the Mueller Law Group.  According to the ethics complaint, Chirico effectively ran both sides of the case and "coached" Egert and gave him a "cheat sheet" to help him prepare for a hearing before Judge Wellerson.

At the hearing, Judge Wellerson rejected the deal calling it "shocking to the conscious" and "abhorrent."  Judge Wellerson then referred the matter to the Office of Attorney Ethics.

The Office of Attorney Ethics served Mueller's attorney, Scott P. Piekarsky of Wyckoff, with the ethics complaint on January 14, 2016.  Mueller has 21 days from that date to file his answer.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on either the Mueller or Chirico matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the Office of Attorney Ethics in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238.