Delbridge v. Office of Public Defender

CourtSuperior Court of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtVILLANUEVA; Upon DYFS's complaint
Citation569 A.2d 854,238 N.J.Super. 288
Decision Date23 January 1989
Parties, 18 A.L.R.5th 1106 Adolph and Jill DELBRIDGE, Plaintiffs, v. OFFICE OF the PUBLIC DEFENDER, Law Guardian Program and Thomas Hartley, Esq., et al., Defendants.

Page 288

238 N.J.Super. 288
569 A.2d 854, 18 A.L.R.5th 1106
Adolph and Jill DELBRIDGE, Plaintiffs,
v.
OFFICE OF the PUBLIC DEFENDER, Law Guardian Program and
Thomas Hartley, Esq., et al., Defendants.
Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division,
Hudson County.
Decided Jan. 23, 1989.

[569 A.2d 856]

Page 291

Adolph Delbridge and Jill Delbridge, plaintiffs, pro se.

Diana Johnston (Alfred A. Slocum, Public Defender/Public Advocate, attorney, Diana Johnston, on the brief; Thomas S. Smith, of counsel), for defendants.

VILLANUEVA, J.S.C.

Plaintiffs allege that defendants conspired to deprive plaintiffs of their constitutional and civil rights and children by committing the following torts:

Page 292

1. Abuse. 2. Acted as an Accessory. 3. Acted as an Accomplice. 4. Acted as an Advocate for DYFS, while depriving his clients and plaintiffs or rights. 5. Battery. 6. Colomny. 7. Breach of Peace. 8. Colusions. 9. Connivances. 10. Concealments Illegally. 11. Conspiracy. 12. Deceits. 13. Defamations. 14. Defrauds. 15. Defaults. 16. Discriminations. 17. Disfranchises. 18. Duresses--Trying to force plaintiff to admit to something he did not do, with threats. 19. Deprived and deceited plaintiffs of due-process rights. 20. Deprived plaintiffs of equal protection of law and rights by frauds. 21. Extortions. 22. Frauds. 23. False Representations. 24. False Pretenses. 25. Infractions unlawfully. 26. Infringements of plaintiff's rights. 27. Illegal intent. 28. Malfeasances. 29. Malice. 30. Malicious Prosecutions. 31. Misfeasances. 32. Misrepresentations. 33. Legal Malpractice. 34. Unlawful Motives. 35. Nonfeasances. 36. Turpitudes. 37. Besides the violations of the statutes and rights....

Defendants move for summary judgment to dismiss the complaints against them or, in the alternative, to dismiss the complaints for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

The issues involved are (1) whether the Office of the Public Defender, Law Guardian Program and its assistant deputy public defender have absolute immunity from suit by aggrieved parents whose children were placed with DYFS; (2) whether designated (pool) attorneys have absolute or qualified immunity from suit by their clients; (3) whether plaintiffs' complaints, including allegations of legal malpractice and conspiracy, against their pro bono attorneys set forth claims upon which relief can be granted; and (4) whether designated (pool) attorneys are "public employees" within the meaning of the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-3, and thereby entitled to indemnification by the State.

The court holds that both the law guardian program and its law guardian have absolute immunity from suit because they are court officers exercising judicial functions. Designated (pool) attorneys have immunity from suit except for legal malpractice, conspiracy or other intentional misconduct. They are "public employees" subject to provisions of the Tort Claims Act, and therefore, entitled to indemnification by the State. Plaintiffs' complaints alleging legal malpractice against their pro bono attorneys do not set forth claims upon which relief

Page 293

can be granted. Plaintiffs' complaints against their court-appointed attorneys alleging a common law and civil rights conspiracy without setting forth any overt act are merely conclusory, and therefore, fail to state claims upon which relief can be granted.

Plaintiffs, Adolph and Jill Delbridge, filed six complaints 1 against the Office of the Public Defender, Law Guardian Program, an attorney with the law guardian program and two attorneys who served as designated counsel for plaintiffs, numbered as follows:

1. Thomas Hartley and the Office of the Public Defendant, Law Guardian Program.

2. Thomas Hartley.

3. Thomas Hartley.

[569 A.2d 857] 4. Thomas Hartley and Office of the Public Defender, Law Guardian program.

5. Jill Delbridge v. Joseph Contaldi.

6. Adolph Delbridge v. Joseph Apicella.

Defendant, Office of the Public Defender, Law Guardian Program is charged with the responsibility of acting as law guardian to children in child abuse or neglect proceedings. The law guardian is appointed by the court. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.23. The parents, if indigent, enjoy the right to appointment of counsel for these proceedings. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.23, -8.43.

Plaintiffs' seven children were removed from their home in Hudson County, pursuant to statute and court order, in the matters of which they complain, for reasons of child neglect and abuse.

Page 294

In those proceedings, Thomas Hartley, an Assistant Deputy Public Defender with the Law Guardian Program of the Office of the Public Defender represented the interests of the children. Adolph and Jill Delbridge, as indigents, each had counsel appointed through the Office of the Public Defender for these proceedings. Because a conflict of interest would arise if staff attorneys represented plaintiffs, attorneys were appointed by the Public Defender, Alfred A. Slocum, through Hudson County Regional Office, from a list of designated counsel (or pool attorneys) pursuant to specific statutory authority. N.J.S.A. 2A:158A-9. Joseph Apicella was appointed to represent Adolph Delbridge, and Joseph Contaldi was appointed to represent Jill Delbridge.

The four complaints against the Office of the Public Defender, Law Guardian Program, and Thomas Hartley fall into two categories: the first two concern the removal of five children from plaintiffs' home on or about January 25, 1985. Plaintiffs allege that the law guardian program, in spite of their complaints, failed to supervise and otherwise insure that Thomas Hartley did his job properly. As to Hartley, these two complaints allege, inter alia, that, he violated the constitutional and civil rights of plaintiffs and their children, apparently, on equal protection grounds because plaintiffs are an interracial couple; he violated the attorneys' and prosecutors' code of conduct and state laws; he failed to properly represent the children; and he conspired with DYFS and the Attorney General against plaintiffs by suppressing evidence, perjury, malice and malicious prosecution. Hartley is also alleged to have kept plaintiffs' children from them and to have placed them up for adoption.

The third and fourth complaints against the law guardian program and Hartley concern the removal from plaintiffs' home of their seventh child on December 10, 1987, and subsequent events. Again, plaintiffs allege that the law guardian program failed to supervise Hartley and that Hartley violated the constitutional and civil rights of plaintiffs and their child. They also

Page 295

allege that their children were neglected in foster care and that Hartley kept this information from plaintiffs. The same allegations concerning malicious prosecution and conspiracy, etc., are made against Hartley in the second two complaints as were made in the first two complaints.

Damages in the millions are sought from both defendants for "mental and physical harm" because plaintiffs have been deprived of "children, home, relationship and proper court relationship."

The last two complaints were filed against Joseph Contaldi, who represented Jill Delbridge, and Joseph Apicella, who represented Adolph Delbridge in the underlying child abuse/neglect proceedings. These complaints, which are virtually identical, allege that counsel conspired with the court and DYFS to protect the court and DYFS. They also allege improper representation and intentional legal malpractice. Unspecified damages are sought against each defendant because plaintiffs "suffered damages, losses and deprivation."

In response to defendants' motion to amend answers, plaintiffs filed a response in which they invoke, as to defendant Hartley, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 and as to defendants Apicella and Contaldi, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986 and 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 241-242.

[569 A.2d 858] A brief review of the underlying proceedings which form the basis of the Delbridge complaints is necessary for an understanding of the instant matters.

On January 25, 1985, the Attorney General, on behalf of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), filed a complaint in Superior Court, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12 and 9:6-8.21 et seq., concerning the protection of the five children of Adolph and Jill Delbridge. On the same day, the court ordered the removal of the children from plaintiffs' home and placed them in the custody of DYFS. In the same order, the court appointed the Public Defender as law guardian for the children.

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Adolph Delbridge, on April 10, 1985 pled guilty to one count of an indictment charging him with a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4, endangering the welfare of one of his children.

Fact-finding hearings were held before Judge Hornstein to determine whether the children were abused or neglected by either or both parents. In an opinion dated October 23, 1986, Judge Hornstein found that plaintiffs' five children were neglected and abused within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21c. and set the matter down for a dispositional hearing. The sixth child of the Delbridges became the subject of a DYFS protection complaint in November 1986 and on December 17, 1986, the child was placed in the custody of DYFS. That matter was consolidated with the original proceeding. On April 20, 1987, DYFS filed a complaint seeking termination of the parental rights of Adolph and Jill Delbridge. The law guardian program does not represent children in termination proceedings; however, Hartley continued as law guardian for the six children at the court's request until a guardian was appointed for the termination proceedings. The representation of plaintiffs by Apicella and Contaldi ended in June 1987 when the complaint was filed to terminate parental rights. The Department of the Public Advocate, Office of the Public Defender, does not represent parents in termination proceedings; rather, representation is provided by the private bar.

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24 practice notes
  • Nieves v. Office of the Pub. Defender, A-69 September Term 2018
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • April 15, 2020
    ...of Public Defender, a Law Division judge found an exception to the immunity afforded under the TCA for legal malpractice claims. 238 N.J. Super. 288, 311, 569 A.2d 854 (Law Div. 1989). Identifying no precedent in this state at the time, the Delbridge court relied on United States Supreme Co......
  • Delbridge v. Schaeffer
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • January 23, 1989
    ...leave to file amended complaints in five cases to add 37 additional defendants. 2 The court has this day, in a separate opinion, 238 N.J.Super. 288, 569 A.2d 854 granted summary judgment in favor of the Office of the Public Defender, Law Guardian Program, the law guardian, and two lawyers a......
  • Mooney v. Frazier, No. 35224.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • April 1, 2010
    ...Smith v. Sneed, 638 So.2d 1252 (Miss.1994); Johnson v. Raban, 702 S.W.2d 134 (Mo.App.1985); Delbridge v. Office of Public Defender, 238 N.J.Super. 288, 569 A.2d 854 (N.J.Super.L.1989) (non-criminal case); Snyder v. Baumecker, 708 F.Supp. 1451 (D.N.J.1989) (applying New Jersey law); Britt v.......
  • Walls v. County of Camden, CIVIL NO. 00-4283 (JBS) (D. N.J. 3/21/2001), CIVIL NO. 00-4283 (JBS).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • March 21, 2001
    ...entails duties which require the state official to exercise some judicial-like function. See Delbridge v. Office of Public Defender, 238 N.J. Super. 288, 303 (Law Div. 1989)(finding that law guardians, because they are appointed by the court to protect the best interests of children, are en......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
24 cases
  • Nieves v. Office of the Pub. Defender, A-69 September Term 2018
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • April 15, 2020
    ...of Public Defender, a Law Division judge found an exception to the immunity afforded under the TCA for legal malpractice claims. 238 N.J. Super. 288, 311, 569 A.2d 854 (Law Div. 1989). Identifying no precedent in this state at the time, the Delbridge court relied on United States Supreme Co......
  • Delbridge v. Schaeffer
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • January 23, 1989
    ...leave to file amended complaints in five cases to add 37 additional defendants. 2 The court has this day, in a separate opinion, 238 N.J.Super. 288, 569 A.2d 854 granted summary judgment in favor of the Office of the Public Defender, Law Guardian Program, the law guardian, and two lawyers a......
  • Mooney v. Frazier, No. 35224.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • April 1, 2010
    ...Smith v. Sneed, 638 So.2d 1252 (Miss.1994); Johnson v. Raban, 702 S.W.2d 134 (Mo.App.1985); Delbridge v. Office of Public Defender, 238 N.J.Super. 288, 569 A.2d 854 (N.J.Super.L.1989) (non-criminal case); Snyder v. Baumecker, 708 F.Supp. 1451 (D.N.J.1989) (applying New Jersey law); Britt v.......
  • Walls v. County of Camden, CIVIL NO. 00-4283 (JBS) (D. N.J. 3/21/2001), CIVIL NO. 00-4283 (JBS).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • March 21, 2001
    ...entails duties which require the state official to exercise some judicial-like function. See Delbridge v. Office of Public Defender, 238 N.J. Super. 288, 303 (Law Div. 1989)(finding that law guardians, because they are appointed by the court to protect the best interests of children, are en......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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