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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Important New Decisions - November 30, 2011

Billing Statements of Former Attorney Inadmissible in Counsel Fee Hearing

In Matter of Denton v Barr, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5922992 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept.) the Appellate Divison modified an order of the Family Court which awarded petitioner attorney's fees of $110,000 and child support arrears of $11,000 to award petitioner $11,742 in child support arrears and $5,322 in interest on the arrears, and to remand the matter for clarification of the amount of attorney's fees awarded to and reversed an order which directed that the $110,000 in attorney's fees be paid to petitioner and mailed to the offices of her counsel. On a prior appeal, the Court found that pursuant to the parties' stipulation of settlement, petitioner was "entitled to attorney's fees and remanded for a hearing to determine the amount of those fees" (69 AD3d 24, 32 [2009] ). It found that the court, in determining the amount of fees due to petitioner, relied on documents that constituted inadmissible hearsay, namely, billing statements of respondent's former attorney (cf. Seinfeld v. Robinson, 300 A.D.2d 208, 209 [2002] ). The matter was remanded to the trial court for clarification of the basis for the amount of fees awarded.

Family Courts Jurisdiction is Limited to Family Offenses Committed Against Persons Listed in Family Court Act 812 Only

In Matter of Janet GG v Robert GG,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5083241 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) in March 2010, petitioner (mother) filed a Family Ct Act article 8 petition alleging that respondent (father) committed a series of family offenses against her and their two children (born in 1996 and 1998). Specifically, she alleged that on March 2, 2010, the father telephoned the children's school, spoke to a guidance counselor and demanded to see his children. Because the counselor believed that an order of protection was in place that barred the father from having such contact with his children, the counselor informed the father that he should not come to the school and, in any event, would not be allowed by school authorities to visit with his children. The father, despite this admonition, went to the school and, upon entering the premises, confronted the school superintendent demanding to see his children. After he became loud and boisterous and refused to leave the premises, the police were notified and the father was placed under arrest. The mother subsequently filed a petition claiming that this conduct qualified as a family offense and, on that basis, sought an order of protection for herself and the children. The father argued that what had occurred, even if true, did not constitute a family offense and, therefore, Family Court did not have jurisdiction. The court agreed and dismissed the petition with prejudice. The Appellate Division affirmed. It observed that Family Court's jurisdiction over family offense proceedings is limited to those acts between family members that 'would constitute disorderly conduct, harassment in the first degree, harassment in the second degree, aggravated harassment in the second degree, ...stalking, menacing in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, reckless endangerment, assault in the second degree, assault in the third degree or an attempted assault (Family Ct Act 812[1] ). Family Court determined that while the father's actions may have constituted disorderly conduct, they did not amount to a family offense because, when committed, the father was not in contact with the mother or either of their children. Instead, the father's actions were directed at school personnel and not any member of his family. The Appellate Division agreed. The father's actions were directed not at the mother or the children, but at school personnel, and what occurred did not constitute a family offense. As such, Family Court was without jurisdiction to entertain this petition (Family Ct Act 812).

Second Department Construes Parties' Stipulation Providing for the Distribution of "Any Pension," to Refer Only to the Portion of Pension Representing Deferred Compensation.

In Nugent-Schubert v Schubert, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5085506 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the plaintiff former wife and the defendant former husband were divorced by judgment incorporating a stipulation of settlement. The stipulation of settlement provided for a 50% distribution to the plaintiff of the value of "any pension" received by the defendant. The plaintiff thereafter submitted to the Supreme Court a Qualified Domestic Relations Order ( QDRO), which included a provision entitling her to receive a share of any future disability pension, but limited to any portion thereof representing the defendant's earnings and years of credited service. However, the Supreme Court struck that provision of the QDRO. Subsequently, the defendant, who was employed by the New York City Police Department, retired on an accidental disability pension as a result of a line-of-duty injury. Pursuant to the QDRO in its current form, the plaintiff was receiving a portion of the defendant's accidental disability pension that represented compensation for personal injuries. The defendant moved to amend the QDRO so as to exclude this portion of his accidental disability pension from distribution to the plaintiff. The Appellate Division held that the motion should have been granted. It observed that where a QDRO is inconsistent with the provisions of a stipulation or judgment of divorce, courts possess the authority to amend the QDRO to accurately reflect the provisions of the stipulation pertaining to the pension benefits. A proper QDRO obtained pursuant to a stipulation of settlement can convey only those rights to which the parties stipulated as a basis for the judgment. Under controlling law, pension benefits, "except to the extent that they are earned or acquired before marriage or after commencement of a matrimonial action, constitute marital property" because they are "in essence, a form of deferred compensation derived from employment" during the marriage. However, any compensation a spouse receives for personal injuries is not considered marital property and is not subject to equitable distribution. Thus, to the extent [a] disability pension represents deferred compensation, it is subject to equitable distribution while to the extent that a disability pension constitutes compensation for personal injuries, that compensation is "separate property" which is not subject to equitable distribution. In Berardi v. Berardi, 54 A.D.3d at 984-985, 865 N.Y.S.2d 245 this Court concluded that, absent a provision in the stipulation specifically awarding the [wife] accident disability benefits, the Supreme Court had erred in amending the QDRO to award the wife a portion of the husband's pension representing compensation for personal injuries, as such a provision in the QDRO expanded the rights granted to the wife under the stipulation. Similarly, here, the parties' stipulation providing for the distribution of "any pension," which was entered into before the defendant became entitled to or applied for an accidental disability pension, must likewise be construed to refer only to the portion of the defendant's pension representing deferred compensation. The Appellate Division distinguished this case from its decisions in Rosenberger v. Rosenberger (63 A.D.3d 898, 882 N.Y.S.2d 426) and Pulaski v. Pulaski (22 A.D.3d 820, 820-821, 804 N.Y.S.2d 404). In those cases, the husbands had applied for disability benefits, based upon line-of-duty injuries, prior to execution of the stipulation such that they were "chargeable with knowledge of the prospect of [an] eventual disability retirement when [they] entered into the stipulation". Thus, in Pulaski and Rosenberger, where the husbands were aware, before entering into a stipulation, of the specific potential for receipt of pension benefits that they would be entitled to treat as separate property, the broad language in the stipulation referring to distribution of a pension generally, with no provision for separate-property treatment of the pension, was reasonably interpreted as intending to distribute the entire disability pension. Here, as in Berardi, where it was unknown and unanticipated that the defendant would qualify for a disability pension, there was no reason to conclude that a general provision providing for equal distribution of "any pension" was intended to opt out of the controlling law in order to distribute portions of any such pension that would not ordinarily be subject to equitable distribution. The fact that the plaintiff submitted a QDRO which would have limited the distribution of any future disability pension to that portion representing deferred compensation further evinced the parties' understanding that separate-property portions of "any pension" received by the husband would not be subject to distribution.

Third Department Affirms Initial Custody Award Made without Evidentary Hearing

In Matter of Cole v Cole, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4975299, 2011 N.Y. Slip Op. 07328 (NYAD 3 Dept) Petitioner (father) and respondent (mother) were the parents of two sons (born in 2007 and 2008). In June 2010, the father filed a petition for custody of the children. He thereafter left the marital residence at the home of the maternal grandmother, and relocated to the paternal grandmother's home. In July 2010, the mother filed a petition seeking custody of the children. At the initial appearance, Family Court assigned an attorney for the children and temporarily ordered joint legal custody of the children with physical custody to the mother and, when the mother was working, childcare provided by the father at the maternal grandmother's home. At the next appearance, the father requested shared physical custody of the children and Family Court granted this as to weekends, when the mother was working. At the third and final appearance, in November 2010, Family Court issued a final order essentially based upon this same arrangement. The Appellate Division affirmed. It rejected the mother’s argument that Family Court erred by issuing a final order without conducting a hearing or engaging in other formalities such as placing stipulations or consent of the parties upon the record. An evidentiary hearing is generally necessary to determine custody matters, but it is not obligatory where, as here, no request is made and the court has sufficient information to undertake a comprehensive independent review of the [children's] best interests. Although no sworn testimony was taken, all three appearances before Family Court were attended by each of the parents, their respective attorneys, and both grandmothers, and the court invited and received input from all involved. The attorney for the children attended the two later appearances, and advocated a position based on interviews with the mother, her employer, the father and various service providers for the children. Further, the Chemung County Department of Social Services provided Family Court with a report assessing the needs of the children and the current family circumstances. The two parents, with the support of the two grandmothers, were essentially collaborating relative to the matters of sharing time and the responsibilities of caring for their children during the course of the proceedings, and Family Court found this structure in the best interests of the children. Although the mother was represented by counsel at all three appearances, at no time did she or her counsel request a hearing or other formalities. Upon review, it found that Family Court had sufficient information before it to support the determination.

Third Department Holds that In Neglect Proceeding Attorney for Children May Advocate a Different Position When the Children's Wishes Would Likely "Result in a Substantial Risk of Imminent, Serious Harm to the Children

In Matter of Alyson J, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5083950 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) a neglect proceeding, the Appellate Division disagreed with respondent's contention that the attorney for the children failed to adequately represent the children's interests. It pointed out that the duty of the attorney for the children is to advocate and express the children's wishes to the court, but on occasion it is acceptable for counsel to deviate from this obligation; the attorney is specifically allowed to advocate a different position when the children's wishes would likely "result in a substantial risk of imminent, serious harm to the child[ren]" (Citing (22 NYCRR 7.2 [d][3]; see Matter of Mark T. v. Joyanna U., 64 A.D.3d 1092, 1093-1094 [2009], lv denied 15 N.Y.3d 715 [2010] ). Here, counsel had been involved with the children for several years and was well aware of their conditions, and the Appellate Division accepted the contrary position as in the best interests of the children. At the fact-finding hearing, the attorney for the children did indicate his clients' wishes, and properly informed Family Court that he was deviating from them.

Child Support Provisions of So-ordered Stipulation Which Did Not Contain Recitals Mandated by the CSSA Not Enforceable, But Remaining Provisions Held Enforceable.

In Bushlow v Bushlow--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5222909 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division held that contrary to the plaintiff's contention, the parties' so-ordered stipulation of settlement dated January 26, 2009, which was incorporated, but not merged, into the judgment of divorce, did not comply with the requirements of the Child Support Standards Act (Domestic Relations Law 240[1-b][h]). The stipulation did not recite that the parties were advised of the provisions of the CSSA, and that the basic child support obligation provided for therein would presumptively result in the correct amount of support to be awarded. "[A] party's awareness of the requirements of the CSSA is not the dispositive consideration under the statute" (Lepore v. Lepore, 276 A.D.2d 677, 678, 714 N.Y.S.2d 343). Moreover, the parties' prorated shares of child care expenses and future reasonable unreimbursed health care expenses deviated from the CSSA guidelines, since they were not calculated based upon the parties' "gross (total) income as should have been or should be reported in the most recent federal income tax return" (Domestic Relations Law 240[1-b][b][5][I]; 240 [1-b][c][1]). Thus, the stipulation was required to contain the additional recitals setting forth, inter alia, the amount that the basic child support obligation would have been under the CSSA (see Domestic Relations Law 240[1-b][h]). Since the so-ordered stipulation of settlement did not contain the specific recitals mandated by the CSSA, its provisions, insofar as they concerned the plaintiff's basic child support payment and "add-ons" for child care and unreimbursed health care expenses, were not enforceable. Accordingly, the Supreme Court should not have incorporated them into the judgment of divorce. However, contrary to the plaintiff's contention, the remaining provisions of the so-ordered stipulation, and the parties' open-court stipulation entered into on September 9, 2008, continued to be enforceable. The record did not support a finding that these provisions were closely intertwined with the basic child support provisions. The matter was remitted to the Supreme Court, for a determination of the basic child support obligation, including the parties' prorated contributions towards child care and reasonable unreimbursed health care expenses, in accordance with the CSSA.

Appellate Division Explains Doctrine of Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel. Incidents in Counterclaim Occurring More than 5 Years Before Commencement May Be Properly Included If Relevant to Evaluation of Party's Claim for Cruelty Divorce.

In Maybaum v Maybaum, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5244417 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the defendant wife and the plaintiff husband were married on March 13, 1995. Two children were born of the marriage. In April 2010, the defendant commenced a proceeding pursuant to article 8 of the Family Court Act, alleging that the plaintiff committed certain family offenses. Thereafter, the plaintiff commenced the action for a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment. On April 27, 2010, the parties appeared before the Family Court and entered into a stipulation on the record. The parties stipulated that the defendant was withdrawing the pending family offense petition, with prejudice, in exchange for the plaintiff giving the defendant exclusive use of the marital residence. The parties agreed that the stipulation was binding in the action for a divorce pending in the Supreme Court. Subsequently, the defendant answered the complaint in this action and asserted a counterclaim for a divorce and ancillary relief on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment. In reply, the plaintiff asserted affirmative defenses, including, as a third affirmative defense, that the defendant's counterclaim was insufficiently specific to meet the requirements of CPLR 3016(c), and, as a fourth affirmative defense, that the counterclaim was barred, in whole or in part, by the doctrines of res judicata, collateral estoppel, and equitable estoppel, based on the stipulation between the parties. The parties made several motions and cross motions for relief.
The Appellate Division held that the Supreme Court erred in granting the plaintiff's motion to strike stated paragraphs of the defendant's counterclaim on the grounds of res judicata, collateral estoppel, and equitable estoppel. The allegations in the defendant's counterclaim for a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment, and the allegations in the plaintiff's family offense petition, did not arise out of the same transaction or series of transactions. "It is not always clear whether particular claims are part of the same transaction for res judicata purposes. A 'pragmatic' test has been applied to make this determination-analyzing 'whether the facts are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties' expectations or business understanding or usage' " (Xiao Yang Chen v. Fischer, 6 N.Y.3d 94, 100-101). Applying this test, it concluded that the family offense petition and counterclaim for a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment did not form a convenient trial unit. Thus, the defendant was not precluded from litigating her counterclaim for a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment in the separate action in the Supreme Court.
The Appellate Division pointed out that collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, precludes a party from relitigating in a subsequent action or proceeding an issue clearly raised in a prior action or proceeding and decided against that party, whether or not the tribunals or causes of action are the same. The doctrine applies if the issue in the second action is identical to an issue which was raised, necessarily decided and material in the first action, and the plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the earlier action. Collateral estoppel effect will only be given to matters actually litigated and determined in a prior action. An issue is not actually litigated if, for example, there has been a default, a confession of liability, a failure to place a matter in issue by proper pleading or even because of a stipulation. Here, the issue of whether the plaintiff committed certain acts against the defendant was never determined in the Family Court proceeding, and the defendant's participation in the stipulation to withdraw her family offense petition, with prejudice, could not be construed to be the kind of determination following a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues that would be necessary to collaterally estop the defendant from establishing that the plaintiff committed the alleged acts. Further, the circumstances set forth by plaintiff simply did not rise to a level of unconscionability warranting application of equitable estoppel.
Since the doctrines of res judicata, collateral estoppel, and equitable estoppel did not preclude the defendant from litigating certain of the allegations in her counterclaim that were alleged in her family offense petition, the Supreme Court should have granted defendant's cross motion to dismiss the plaintiff's fourth affirmative defense alleging that the defendant's counterclaim was barred in whole or in part by the doctrines of res judicata, collateral estoppel, and equitable estoppel, as that defense has no merit.
The Appellate Division held that Supreme Court erred in granting plaintiff's motion to strike stated paragraphs of the defendant's counterclaim, in effect, as time-barred on the ground they alleged acts occurring more than five years prior to the commencement of the action. The allegations in the counterclaim relating to incidents occurring more than five years before the commencement of the action may be properly included to the extent that those allegations may be relevant to an evaluation of a party's claim for a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment in the context of the entire marriage.

Family Court Erred by Granting the Father's Motion for Summary Judgment Modifying Custody Order Without Allowing Mother Opportunity to Present Evidence. Due Process Requires That a Parent Be Afforded "A Full and Fair Opportunity to Be Heard

In Matter of Jeffrey JJ v Stephanie KK, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4975012 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) Petitioner ( father) and respondent (mother) were the parents of a daughter (born in 2003). Pursuant to a prior order of custody, the parties' apparently shared legal custody of the child; the mother had primary physical custody and the father had liberal visitation time. The father commenced a proceeding seeking primary physical custody of the child after the Rensselaer County Department of Social Services commenced a neglect proceeding against the mother and her husband (stepfather) after receiving a report that the stepfather had been intoxicated while driving with the mother, the subject child and another child in the vehicle. At the fact-finding hearing, the father presented evidence of an existing order of protection that prohibited the stepfather from having any contact with the subject child until July 30, 2010. The father then made an oral motion for Family Court to award him custody, which the court granted over the mother's objection, after it concluded that it was "impossible [for] ... the child's primary residence to be with the mother[,] who is living with [the stepfather,] against whom there is an order of protection." The court further concluded that the issue of the child's best interests had "almost been determined by virtue of the fact that there is an order of protection against" the stepfather. The court then awarded the father primary physical custody of the child with parenting time to the mother. The Appellate Division agreed with the mother that Family Court erred by granting the father's motion without allowing her an opportunity to present any evidence. In a proceeding pursuant to Family Ct. Act article 6 seeking modification of a prior custody order, a full and comprehensive hearing is required. At such hearing, due process requires that a parent be afforded "a full and fair opportunity to be heard. Family Court violated the mother's due process rights when it granted the father's motion for summary judgment on the petition without permitting the mother an opportunity to present any evidence, call any witnesses, or even testify on her own behalf. While the court believed that the order of protection against the stepfather rendered it impossible for it to award the mother primary physical custody, on cross-examination the stepfather indicated that he was willing to move out of the mother's residence until that order expired. However, the mother was denied an opportunity to present evidence regarding the feasibility of this plan when the court granted the father's motion. In a footnote the court observed that the prior order was not included in the record on appeal, which omission ordinarily results in dismissal of the appeal (see Matter of Pratt v. Anthony, 30 A.D.3d 708, 815 N.Y.S.2d 832 [2006] ). However, since there was no dispute as to the terms of the prior order, which were put on the record in open court by Family Court, it decided to reach the merits of this appeal

Second Department Explains Requirements of Anders Brief and Responsibilities of Counsel in Relieving Assigned Counsel Who Filed Inadequate Brief

In Matter of Giovani S, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5222834 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the mother appealed from a fact-finding order in a child protective proceeding which found that she had neglected the child. The mother's counsel submitted a brief pursuant to Anders v. California (386 U.S. 738, 87 S.Ct. 1396, 18 L.Ed.2d 493), in which he moved for leave to withdraw as counsel for the appellant. The Appellate Division granted the motion, relieved assigned counsel for the appellant and appointed a new attorney as counsel to perfect the appeal from the fact-finding order. In its decision, written by Justice Skelos, the Court reviewed the basic principles espoused in Anders and their proper application, as well as the responsibilities of counsel in relation to the filing of briefs pursuant to Anders.
The Court observed that the fundamental principles upon which Anders was founded apply in both criminal and family law cases. The Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment converge to require that indigent criminal defendants, faced with the risk of loss of liberty or grievous forfeiture are granted equal rights to appeal through the representation and advocacy of assigned counsel. Likewise, a parent's concern for the liberty of the child, as well as for his care and control, involves too fundamental an interest and right to be relinquished to the State without the opportunity for a hearing, with assigned counsel if the parent lacks the means to retain a lawyer (Matter of Ella B., 30 N.Y.2d 352, 356-357. Accordingly, indigent parties to certain Family Court proceedings, such as child protective proceedings pursuant to Family Court Act article 10, are entitled to be represented by assigned counsel (Family Ct Act 262[a][i]. Nonetheless, there is one limitation placed upon the right to counsel on appeal. It does not include the right to counsel for bringing a frivolous appeal. The United States Supreme Court in Anders set forth a procedure, subsequently adopted by the New York State Court of Appeals, which, when properly utilized in the context of potentially frivolous appeals, safeguards an indigent appellant's rights (see Anders v. California, 386 U.S. at 744). According to that procedure, if, after a conscientious examination of the record, assigned counsel finds a case to be wholly frivolous, counsel should so advise the court and request permission to withdraw. In fulfilling assigned counsel's role as an active advocate such requests to withdraw must be accompanied by a brief reciting the underlying facts and highlighting anything in the record that might arguably support the appeal. A copy of counsel's brief should be furnished the indigent and time allowed him to raise any points that he chooses; the court--not counsel--then proceeds, after a full examination of all the proceedings, to decide whether the case is wholly frivolous. If the court "finds any of the legal points arguable on their merits (and therefore not frivolous) it must, prior to decision, afford the indigent the assistance of counsel to argue the appeal. If, however, the court is satisfied that counsel has diligently investigated the possible grounds of appeal, and agrees with counsel's evaluation of the case, then leave to withdraw may be allowed, and the appeal decided.
The Appellate Division pointed out that there are essentially two steps to the Court's review of an attorney's motion to be relieved pursuant to Anders. First, the Court must satisfy itself that the attorney has provided the client with a diligent and thorough search of the record for any arguable claim that might support the client's appeal. Significantly, although an indigent whose appeal is frivolous has no right to have an advocate make his case to the appellate court, such an indigent does, in all cases, have the right to have an attorney, zealous for the indigent's interests, evaluate his case and attempt to discern nonfrivolous arguments. "Every advocate has essentially the same professional responsibility whether he or she accepted a retainer from a paying client or an appointment from a court. In the fulfillment of that responsibility, counsel should promptly obtain any transcripts, and consult with the client, as well as with trial counsel (see People v. Stokes, 95 N.Y.2d at 637; People v. Gonzalez, 47 N.Y.2d at 610-611). Further, assigned counsel "must master the trial record, thoroughly research the law, and exercise judgment in identifying the arguments that may be advanced on appeal. In searching for the strongest arguments available, the attorney must be zealous and resolve all doubts and ambiguous legal questions in favor of his or her client. Only after such a diligent and conscientious examination of the case will counsel be in a position to determine that there are no nonfrivolous issues to raise on appeal. Once that determination is made, as counsel must file a brief "reciting the underlying facts and highlighting anything in the record that might arguably support the appeal. The Court noted that the Court of Appeals' decisions in Stokes and Gonzalez provide guidance as to what will be considered a deficient brief. These cases demonstrate, counsel must, at a minimum, draw the Court's attention to the relevant evidence, with specific references to the record; identify and assess the efficacy of any significant objections, applications, or motions; and identify possible issues for appeal, with reference to the facts of the case and relevant legal authority. Counsel cannot merely recite the underlying facts, and state a bare conclusion that, after reviewing the record and discussing the case with the client, it is the writer's opinion that there are no nonfrivolous issues to be raised on appeal . Where counsel has failed in his or her role as advocate by filing a deficient brief, on this basis alone, new counsel will be assigned to represent the appellant on the appeal. If the Court is satisfied, however, that counsel diligently examined the case on the indigent appellant's behalf, the next step in the Court's review is to determine, based upon an independent review of the record, whether counsel's assessment that there are no nonfrivolous issues for appeal is correct. In analyzing whether nonfrivolous appellate issues exist, it is essential to appreciate the distinction between a potential appellate argument that is merely meritless or unlikely to prevail and one that is frivolous. There must, however, be a finding of frivolity, not merely an evaluation of the likelihood that the defendant will prevail on the merits, because the exception to the constitutional requirement that certain indigent parties receive representation on appeal is predicated on the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require appointed counsel to press wholly frivolous arguments. Thus, once a court determines that the trial record supports arguable claims, there is no basis for the exception" and the indigent appellant is entitled to representation. Accordingly, it is inappropriate for the Court to analyze the merits of any particular appellate issue where the appellant has not received the benefit of a merits-based brief prepared by counsel. The question, therefore, to be answered by the Court in every Anders case is only whether "the appeal lacks any basis in law or fact". The question is not whether the appeal presents any issues that have merit, but whether it presents any issues that are "arguable" on the merits .
Turning to the present appeal, the Appellate Division found that counsel's Anders application failed on both levels of review. The Anders brief filed by assigned counsel for the mother contained a four-page statement of facts, in which he reviewed the testimony given by the sole witness (a police officer) presented by ACS, and ACS's documentary evidence. The brief reviewed only the witness's direct testimony, not the mother's counsel's cross-examination, and did not identify and evaluate the mother's counsel's objections. Significantly, although this case was resolved on motions, counsel's brief merely stated that motions were made, and indicates how they were decided, but does not include any summary of the arguments made by the parties. Finally, counsel failed to analyze any possible appellate issues or highlight anything in the record that might arguably support the appeal. The "argument" section of counsel's brief merely stated in conclusory fashion: "The undersigned has fully analyzed the record below, performed the necessary legal research, and it is my legal opinion that there are no nonfrivolous issues to raise on appeal." Accordingly, counsel failed in his role as advocate by filing a deficient brief, and, on this basis alone, the mother was entitled to new counsel. It noted that based upon an independent review of the record, the record presented nonfrivolous issues including, but not limited to, whether ACS met its burden of showing that, as alleged in the petition, the mother was involved in a drug sale in the child's presence; whether ACS's evidence was insufficient to establish neglect, at least as a matter of law and relatedly, whether the matter was improperly decided on a motion for summary judgment.