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Sprole v. Sprole

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

July 27, 2017

LINDA S. SPROLE, Appellant, and RICHARD B. ALDERMAN et al., Respondents.

          Calendar Date: June 5, 2017

          Linda S. Sprole, Ithaca, appellant pro se.

          Harris Beach, PLLC, Syracuse (John A. Cirando of D.J. & J.A. Cirando, of counsel), for Robert R. Sprole III, respondent.

          Alderman and Alderman, Syracuse (Richard B. Alderman of counsel), respondent pro se.

          Macht, Brenizer & Gingold, PC, Syracuse (Sara Lowengard of counsel) for Harlan Gingold, respondent.

          Susan Kirby, Ithaca, respondent pro se.

          Before: Egan Jr., J.P., Lynch, Devine and Clark, JJ.


          Clark, J.

         Appeal from an order of the Supreme Court (Ames, J.), entered March 10, 2016 in Tompkins County, which denied defendant Linda S. Sprole's motion to dismiss the complaint.

         Pursuant to the terms of their September 2015 judgment of divorce, plaintiff was required to pay defendant Linda S. Sprole, his former spouse, $60, 000 on January 1, 2016 as part of her equitable distribution award (see Sprole v Sprole, 145 A.D.3d 1367, 1368 [2016]). After the judgment of divorce was granted, defendant Richard B. Alderman, one of Sprole's former attorneys, moved on behalf of the firm of Alderman and Alderman to secure a charging lien against Sprole in the amount of $53, 937.98 (see Judiciary Law 475) and served plaintiff with a notice of lien, indicating that any and all payments made by plaintiff to Sprole would be subject to the charging lien [1]. In December 2015, roughly two weeks prior to the January 1, 2016 payment deadline, plaintiff commenced the instant interpleader action against Sprole and four of her prior attorneys in the divorce action - Alderman and defendants Harlan Gingold, Susan Kirby and Michael Sinicki (hereinafter collectively referred to as the attorney defendants) - alleging that each of the attorney defendants claimed or purported to claim an interest in the $60, 000 sum owed to Sprole, by way of a charging lien or judgment, and seeking to have Supreme Court determine the proper distribution of the $60, 000 payment.

         Kirby answered, stating that she had been awarded a charging lien in the amount of $8, 858.42 in December 2011, upon which she subsequently secured a judgment, and requesting that the amount of her lien, plus interest, be satisfied from the $60, 000 equitable distribution payment owed to Sprole. In lieu of answering, Sprole moved to dismiss the complaint on various grounds, including failure to state a claim and failure to join a necessary party. Plaintiff and Kirby opposed the motion, and Gingold and Sinicki responded to both the complaint and the motion to dismiss by letter. Specifically, Gingold stated that Supreme Court had awarded him a money judgment on a charging lien that he had secured against Sprole in the amount of $2, 394.97, plus interest, and that the court had directed that the amount of the judgment could be deducted from any equitable distribution payments made to Sprole [2]. Sinicki advised the court that, although Sprole had an outstanding account balance with his firm, the firm never sought a lien or judgment against her and, therefore, took no position in this action [3]. Supreme Court denied Sprole's motion to dismiss, and Sprole appeals.

         We affirm. A stakeholder, that is, "a person who is or may be exposed to multiple liability as the result of adverse claims, " may commence an interpleader action against two or more people "who ha[ve] made or may be expected to make" an adverse claim against him or her (CPLR 1006 [a]; see generally Shields v Carbone, 99 A.D.3d 1055, 1056 [2012]; Merrimack Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v Moore, 91 A.D.2d 759, 760 [1982]). Where an attorney has a charging lien pursuant to Judiciary Law § 475, he or she has "an equitable ownership interest in the client's cause of action" (LMWT Realty Corp. v Davis Agency, 85 N.Y.2d 462, 467 [1995]; see Sprole v Sprole, 148 A.D.3d 1337, 1338 [2017]), "which attaches to a... judgment or final order in his or her client's favor, and the proceeds thereof in whatever hands they may come" (Judiciary Law § 475). Such charging lien may be properly enforced against the client's adversary if he or she "either still possesses the proceeds [owed to the client] or... has knowingly paid the proceeds to the client so as to deprive the attorney of an earned fee" (Kaplan v Reuss, 113 A.D.2d 184, 186-187 [1985] [internal citations omitted], affd 68 N.Y.2d 693');">68 N.Y.2d 693 [1986]; see Haser v Haser, 271 A.D.2d 253, 255 [2000]).

         In his complaint, plaintiff alleged a good faith belief that the attorney defendants had each claimed some interest in Sprole's equitable distribution award and stated that, because he was unaware of the respective rights of the attorney defendants, he could not determine how to distribute the $60, 000 equitable distribution payment "without hazard to himself." Given that plaintiff could have been exposed to liability if he, having knowledge of the attorney defendants' claims or potential claims, paid the $60, 000 sum to Sprole on January 1, 2016 (see Judiciary Law § 475; Kaplan v Reuss, 113 A.D.2d at 186-187), plaintiff properly commenced this interpleader action, and it is not, as Sprole asserts, frivolous. Nor did plaintiff commit grand larceny in the second degree by commencing this interpleader action and depositing the disputed $60, 000 sum into an escrow account - held by his counsel - pending disposition of the action (see generally Finn v Church for the Art of Living, Inc., 90 A.D.3d 826, 827-828 [2011]).

         Sprole also argues that Supreme Court should have dismissed the complaint because plaintiff failed to join David Tamber, rather than Alderman, as a necessary party to this action (see CPLR 3211 [a] [10]). Sprole asserts that Tamber, not Alderman, was her retained counsel because the retainer agreement that she entered into with the law firm of Alderman and Alderman was signed by Tamber. However, as this Court recently observed (Sprole v Sprole, 2017 NY Slip Op 05131 at *2), the retainer agreement was between Sprole and the law firm, identified Alderman as a member of the law firm and detailed Alderman's fee rates. Moreover, it is undisputed that Alderman appeared as counsel on Sprole's ...

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