Category Archives: Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism

Florida Bar Board of Governors reverses advertising opinion and finds that solicitation rules apply to targeted social media

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Bar Board of Governors (BOG)  reversal of a Florida Bar advertising committee opinion that found that targeted social media advertisements were not subject to the solicitation rules.

The BOG voted at its January 2020 meeting to reverse an opinion by the Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising related to a lawyer who wanted to use information that prospective class action members provided to social media platforms and target specific advertisements to their social media feeds.  The BOG’s Board Review Committee had previously voted 9-0 to recommend that the BOG reverse the Standing Committee on Advertising and find that these types of advertisements are direct solicitations and are required to comply with the direct contact/solicitation rules.

The inquiring lawyer did not indicate the specific legal matter that would be pursued; however, the lawyer gave, as an example, an advertisement for an employment class action that would be targeted to users who had told social media providers that they currently or previously worked for the potential defendant company.

The Bar advertising committee’s opinion found that this type of advertisement was subject to the direct contact/solicitation rule; however, it must comply with the general advertising rules.  The Florida Bar staff and professional ethics committee had also previously issued opinions stating that a lawyer posting information in an online chat room or sending text messages to telephones are required to comply with the direct contact/solicitation rules.

Bottom line:  As a result of the BOG decision (and unless it is reversed), lawyers who wish to use such targeted social media advertisements will be required to comply with the strict requirements of Florida Bar Rule 4-7.18(b) regarding direct contact with prospective clients.  Lawyers should also keep in mind that ethics and advertising opinions (and a BOG reversal of an opinion) are not binding and for guidance only; however, lawyers may be still subject to investigation and potential discipline if the interpretation of the rule is upheld.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2999 Alt. 19, Suite A

Palm Harbor, Florida

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Please note:  My office has moved and the new office address is 2999 Alt. 19, Palm Harbor, FL 34683.  All other contact information remains the same.

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Florida Bar Ethics Committee votes to publish proposed opinion providing guidance in responding to negative online reviews

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent vote by the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee (PEC) to publish a proposed ethics advisory opinion providing guidance to lawyers in responding to negative online reviews and complaint for comment.  Proposed Ethics Advisory Opinion 20-1 is here: https://www.floridabar.org/the-florida-bar-news/committee-adopts-ethics-opinion-regarding-online-reviews/

The PEC voted at its February 7, 2020 meeting to publish formal Ethics Advisory Opinion 20-1, which provides guidance to lawyers in responding to negative online reviews for comment by Florida Bar members.

The Florida Bar ethics staff previously issued Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049 in 2018 in response to a lawyer’s inquiry.  The BOG approved the staff opinion on June 15, 2018; however, since the opinion was a reply to a single lawyer, it was not published.  I discussed  Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049 provided a link to that opinion here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/florida-bar-professional-ethics-committee-approves-staff-opinion-addressing-lawyer-responses-to-negative-online-reviews/

That staff opinion was minimally revised by the PEC and will be published online and in print in The Florida News for Bar member comments. The proposed formal advisory opinion concludes:

“Therefore, if the inquirer chooses to respond to the negative online review and the inquirer does not obtain the former client’s informed consent to reveal confidential information, the inquirer must not reveal confidential information regarding the representation, but must only respond in a general way, such as that the inquirer disagrees with the client’s statements. The inquirer should not disclose that the court entered an order allowing the inquirer to withdraw because that is information relating to the client’s representation and the client did not give informed consent for the inquirer to disclose.”

The proposed advisory opinion states that Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(c) provides 6 exceptions permitting or mandating that a lawyer reveal confidential client information; however, none of the exceptions addresses online reviews.  The proposed opinion also refers to the comment to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6, which states:

“A fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation….(t)he confidentiality rule applies not merely to matters communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information relating to the representation, whatever its source.”

The proposed opinion states that the language in Texas Ethics Opinion 622 “would be an acceptable response” to negative online reviews:

“A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point by point fashion in this forum. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.”  “The (lawyer) also may state that the (lawyer) disagrees with the facts stated in the review.”

According to the Bar’s Notice, the PEC will consider any comments received at their meeting on Friday, June 19, 2020 in Orlando.

“Comments must contain the proposed advisory opinion number and clearly state the issues for the committee to consider. A written argument may be included explaining why the Florida Bar member believes the committee’s opinion is either correct or incorrect and may contain citations to relevant authorities. Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than March 31, 2020.”

Bottom line:  Lawyers must be aware that negative online reviews do not fall within any of the exceptions which permit or require revealing confidential client information and, absent client informed consent, lawyers are not permitted to reveal confidential information in responding to the negative review.  In our digital and social media age, perhaps a change in the Bar Rule permitting such responses would be appropriate.

I will keep you advised and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2999 Alt. 19, Suite A

Palm Harbor, Florida

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

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Ransomware attack against South Florida digital record storage entity block law firm’s access to electronic records

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss a recent Miami Herald article discussing a ransomware attack against a South Florida software company that manages electronic records for thousands of law firms nationwide in which digital legal documents have been held hostage.  The October 25, 2019 Miami Herald article is here:  https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/article236645058.html

According to the Herald article, “a Florida law firm was forced to request more time to meet a filing deadline in a gender-discrimination employment case in federal court because it could not access its electronic documents stored with TrialWorks.”  “The firm’s attorney representing the deputy (in the Citrus County federal gender discrimination lawsuit) cited the TrialWorks’ software problem, saying the company ‘has shut down access’ to critical documents in the case. The law firm needed the documents to address a dispute over the testimony of an expert witness for Citrus County. Its response was due Friday (October 25, 2019).”

“Since Oct. 11, 2019, plaintiff’s counsel, as well as other TrialWorks clients, have been unable to access documents,” says the law firm’s motion requesting more time. “As of Oct. 24, 2019, plaintiff’s counsel remains unable to access all the necessary documents required to respond.”  “The deadline issue was quickly resolved because attorneys for Citrus County did not oppose the law firm’s request. Melton’s firm has until Nov. 14 to respond, assuming it can gain access before then to crucial records at TrialWorks.”

The article also states:  “TrialWorks acknowledged it ‘was recently targeted by a ransomware incident that did not affect our software but did prevent approximately 5 percent of our customers … from accessing their accounts.’”  “In a statement, the company said it started an internal investigation and retained independent cybersecurity experts. “We have been working around the clock to restore normal operations for our customers as quickly as possible, and nearly all customers have had access restored within a week.”  “Company officials said they have not contacted federal authorities about the ransomware attack but plan to share information from the internal investigation with law enforcement.”

“Earlier this month, TrialWorks began alerting its customers about the security breach and initially indicated it was caused by a Microsoft service outage affecting Outlook desktop and mobile apps, according to court records. But the company’s customer alerts became more ominous over the past two weeks, including one that cited a ‘ransomware incident.’”

Bottom line:  This unfortunate ransomware incident highlights the vulnerability of digital information, including information stored digitally by litigation document assistance providers such as TrialWorks.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2999 Alt. 19, Suite A

Palm Harbor, Florida

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Florida Supreme Court approves revised Bar advertising rule with requirements for lawyers to call themselves “experts” or “specialists”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion approving (with minor revisions) Bar Rule 4-7.14, which sets forth the requirements for Florida  lawyers to call themselves “experts” and “specialists”  in advertisements and other documents.  The case is In re: Amendments to Rule Regulating The Florida Bar 4-7.14., Case No. SC18-2019.  The June 27, 2019 Supreme Court of Florida opinion is here: https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/content/download/527989/5865891/file/sc18-2019.pdf.  The rule revisions become effective on August 26, 2019.

As I blogged previously here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/federal-district-judge-enjoins-the-florida-bar-from-enforcing-rule-prohibiting-truthful-claims-of-expertise/, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle found in 2015 that non-certified lawyers could have the skills and experience of certified lawyers and held that the Florida Bar Rule restricting the use of “expert” and “specialist” to lawyers who were certified by The Florida Bar (or its equivalent) was unconstitutional and he enjoined the Bar from enforcing it.  The Florida Bar did not appeal.

The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) imposed a moratorium on enforcing the rule as written and proposed rule amendments to comply with Judge Hinkle’s ruling; however, the Florida Supreme Court rejected them.  The BOG revised the proposed rule amendments and filed them in 2018.  The opinion approved the revised rule with minor revisions.

The revised Florida Bar Rule 4-7.14 states that lawyers may not claim to have specialization or expertise in an area of law unless they are certified by the Florida Bar, the American Bar Association, another Bar’s accredited plan, or “can objectively verify the claim based on the lawyer’s education, training, experience, or substantial involvement in the area of practice in which specialization or expertise is claimed.”  The Bar’s proposed draft rule stated “and substantial”; however, the court changed the “and” to “or”, which is an important revision.

In addition, a law firm may make that claim of expertise in an area of practice if it can show that at least one of its lawyers can meet those standards and if all firm lawyers cannot meet those standards, it must have a disclaimer that not all of its lawyers specialize or have expertise in that area of practice.  Revisions were also made to the rule comments stating that a lawyer who is “of counsel” to a law firm would permit the firm to claim specialization and expertise if the “of counsel” practices solely with that firm.

Bottom line: The revised Florida Bar rule has been in development since 2015 and the Supreme Court rejected a previous version of the proposed rule.  The rule will now permit lawyers to call themselves “experts” or “specialists” if they are certified by the Florida Bar, the American Bar Association, another Bar’s accredited plan,  if the lawyer “can objectively verify the claim based on the lawyer’s education, training, experience, or substantial involvement in the area of practice in which specialization or expertise is claimed.”

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Florida Supreme Court permanently disbars lawyer for, inter alia, breaking into former law firm, creating parallel firm, and filing multiple improper fee liens

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Order permanently disbarring a Florida lawyer for, inter alia, breaking into his former law firm and the firm’s storage unit, creating a parallel law firm, and filing multiple improper fee liens.  The case is The Florida Bar v. Christopher Louis Brady, Case No.: SC19-39, TFB No. 2019-10,127(12B)(HES).  The July 11, 2019 Florida Supreme Court Order is here: https://lsg.floridabar.org/dasset/DIVADM/ME/MPDisAct.nsf/DISACTVIEW/2A42CACF97608E7785258439000C41B7/$FILE/_11.PDF 

According to the referee’s report, the lawyer was employed as an associate at a law firm and was fired in July 2018 after missing hearings and for exhibiting “odd and concerning behavior.”  Almost immediately after his firing, the lawyer began holding himself out as the owner of the former law firm even though there was one sole owner.  The Report of Referee is here: https://lsg.floridabar.org/dasset/DIVADM/ME/MPDisAct.nsf/DISACTVIEW/32070D97303477DA852583DF000AB0F1/$FILE/_19.PDF.  The lawyer justified his actions by claiming that the former law firm’s failure to use periods in “PA” when created as a professional association gave him the right to create a new firm of the same name by filing as a professional association with periods, so that it read “P.A.”.

The lawyer and his twin brother were also criminally charged with burglarizing the former law firm’s office in August 2018.  A videotape of the burglary apparently showed the lawyer and his brother backing a truck up to the law firm, tying a rope from the truck to the front door and using the vehicle to rip the door open. The video also showed the lawyer and his brother removing a safe and the law firm’s computer server.  A few days later, the lawyer and his brother burglarized the law firm owner’s storage unit using keys which were taken from a safe that was stolen during the law firm burglary, according to the referee.  The lawyer also stole a firearm during the burglary.

The lawyer filed several documents on behalf of the law firm and its clients without their knowledge or authority, and filed a false confession of judgment in his own favor.  He also filed more than 100 notices of liens for fees in the law firm’s pending cases “in an attempt to grab fees from cases to which he was not entitled.”

The law firm owner obtained an injunction which barred the lawyer from harassing him or interfering with his business.  The injunction also prohibited the lawyer from contacting the firm owner, his employees, his clients or his attorney. The lawyer violated that injunction multiple times and a court order was issued holding him in contempt for violating the injunction three times.

The referee’s report cited the lawyer’s refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct as one of the multiple aggravating factors and recommended permanent disbarment.  According to the referee’s report, “(the lawyer’s failure to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his misconduct) is perhaps the most profoundly implicated aggravator in this case”.  The lawyer “clings to his justification for his actions with a ferocity that is quite disturbing.”

Bottom line:  This case is certainly very bizarre and the lawyer’s conduct as set forth in the report of referee is extremely disturbing.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

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Florida Bar Board of Governors approves proposed Bar rule prohibiting misleading law firm information in all lawyer advertisements

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent approval of revisions to Florida Bar Rule 4-7.13 by the Florida Bar Board of Governors (BOG).  If implemented, the proposed revisions would prohibit misleading law firm information in all Florida lawyer advertisements.

As I previously reported, the agenda for the BOG’s May 26, 2019 meeting included final action on a proposed amendment to Florida Bar Rule 4-7.13 related to misleading law firm advertisements. The BOG ethics committee previously voted not to approve a proposal to add Bar Rule 4-7.13(c), which would have stated:

It is inherently misleading or deceptive for a lawyer to intentionally use, or arrange for the use of, the name of a lawyer not in the same firm or the name of another law firm as words or phrases that trigger the display of the lawyer’s advertising on the internet or other media, including directly or through a group advertising program.”

The revised proposed rule would broaden the prohibition to include all advertisements stating or implying that a lawyer is affiliated with the advertising lawyer or law firm in a way that misleads a person searching either for a particular lawyer or law firm or for information regarding a particular lawyer or law firm, to unknowingly contact a different lawyer or law firm.  The proposed rule is below.

RULE 4-7.13 DECEPTIVE AND INHERENTLY MISLEADING ADVERTISEMENTS 

(b) Examples of Deceptive and Inherently Misleading Advertisements. Deceptive or inherently misleading advertisements include, but are not limited to advertisements that contain: 

(11) a statement or implication that another lawyer or law firm is part of, is associated with, or affiliated with the advertising law firm when that is not the case, including contact or other information presented in a way that misleads a person searching for a particular lawyer or law firm, or for information regarding a particular lawyer or law firm, to unknowingly contact a different lawyer or law firm.

The proposed rule will now undergo a review process and will be sent to the Florida Supreme Court in a petition for potential approval and implementation.

Bottom line:  As I have previously reported, if the revised Rule 4-7.13 prohibiting all of these types of misleading advertisements is implemented by the Florida Supreme Court, the rule would be consistent with other jurisdictions that have considered the issue.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Filed under Attorney Ethics, deceit, false statements, Florida Bar, Florida Bar rule using GoogleAds words to misdirect to another firm, Florida Bar Rule- lawyer misleading law firm information in all advertising, Florida Lawyer advertising rules, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer advertising, Lawyer advertising rules, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer misleading law firm information in advertising, Lawyer misrepresentation, misrepresentations, Uncategorized

Florida Bar’s Board of Governors considers final action on proposed rule revision prohibiting misleading law firm information in all advertisements

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the potential final review of potential revisions to Florida Bar Rules 4-7.13 by the Florida Bar Board of Governors (BOG), which would prohibit misleading law firm information in advertisements.

The BOG’s agenda for its May 24, 2019 meeting includes final action on a proposed amendment to Rule 4-7.13 related to misleading digital advertisements.  As I previously reported, the BOG ethics committee previously voted down a proposal to add Bar Rule 4-7.13(c) which would have stated that “it is inherently misleading or deceptive for a lawyer to intentionally use, or arrange for the use of, the name of a lawyer not in the same firm or the name of another law firm as words or phrases that trigger the display of the lawyer’s advertising on the internet or other media, including directly or through a group advertising program.”

The revised proposed rule would prohibit all advertisements from stating or implying that a lawyer is affiliated with the advertising lawyer or law firm in a way that misleads a person searching either for a particular lawyer or law firm or for information regarding a particular lawyer or law firm, to unknowingly contact a different lawyer or law firm.  The proposed rule revision is below.

RULE 4-7.13 DECEPTIVE AND INHERENTLY MISLEADING ADVERTISEMENTS

(b) Examples of Deceptive and Inherently Misleading Advertisements. Deceptive or inherently misleading advertisements include, but are not limited to advertisements that contain:

(11) a statement or implication that another lawyer or law firm is part of, is associated with, or affiliated with the advertising law firm when that is not the case, including contact or other information presented in a way that misleads a person searching for a particular lawyer or law firm, or for information regarding a particular lawyer or law firm, to unknowingly contact a different lawyer or law firm.

Bottom line:  As I previously blogged, if the BOG takes final action on the proposed revised Rule 4-7.13 prohibiting all of these types of misleading advertisements (and if the Florida Supreme Court implements the revised rule), this would be consistent with other jurisdictions that have considered the issue.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Florida Bar obtains emergency suspension of lawyer for “waging a personal and public war on social media”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent emergency suspension of a Florida lawyer for allegedly “waging a personal and public war on social media against attorneys representing clients” and “resort(ing) to terrorist legal tactics.”  The case is: The Florida Bar v. Ashley Ann Krapacs, Case No.: SC-277 Lower Tribunal No(s) 2018-50,829 (17I)FES; 2018-50,851(17I);2019-50,081(17I) and The Florida Bar’s Petition for Emergency Suspension is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2019/277/2019-277_petition_72430_petition2dsuspension2028emergency29.pdf

According to the Petition, the lawyer “launched an attack of massive and continuous proportions” on social media and “(c)learly, respondent’s fury has no bounds.” The lawyer’s alleged “terrorist legal tactics” began after she moved to Florida and initiating a petition for a domestic violence injunction against a former boyfriend in Texas and lawyer Russell Williams represented the ex-boyfriend.  The lawyer dismissed the case; however, she then allegedly “began a social media blitz” on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

The lawyer allegedly called  Williams an “old white male attorney” and a “bully attorney” who had threatened to file a motion for sanctions against her if she did not dismiss the case.  She also stated that “opposing counsel flat-out LIED” and the judge ‘didn’t bat an eye.’”.  She also allegedly used the hashtag #holymisogyny on social media when talking about the case and accused the judge of membership in the “Old Boys Club.”

The lawyer also allegedly continued the misconduct in a YouTube video posted after Williams hired lawyer Nisha Bacchus to represent him and filed a lawsuit against the lawyer for Libel, Slander, Malicious Prosecution and Injunctive Relief.  In the video, the lawyer allegedly called Williams “a moron and a sexist and a bully” and said Bacchus was “a backstabbing traitor” for representing “misogynist pigs, misogynist bullies.”  “Also, she’s a door lawyer. Which is basically a lawyer who takes anything that walks in the door in any area of law.  Because you can’t do every area of law and do them all well. You just can’t. Some people try and they end up like Nisha Bacchus who are so hard up that they’ll take anything, including shit like this. So I almost feel bad for her because he’s playing her. It is really obvious from the way that she presents herself that she’ll take anything if the price is right. Or even if it’s not.”  The lawyer also used hashtags #sellout and #womanhater for Bacchus.

The Petition states that the lawyer made multiple posts on Facebook “accusing The Florida Bar of being corruptly influenced by Nisha Bacchus. Bacchus requested a domestic violence injunction against the lawyer after she posted a Home Alone meme showing a shotgun pointed at an individual and added the caption “when opposing counsel tries to use the same exact trick you saw in your last case.”  According to the Petition, “(o)n February 1, 2019, Judge Moon granted an indefinite Final Judgment of Injunction for Protection Against Stalking against (the lawyer) as a result of her actions toward Nisha Bacchus”

The Florida Supreme Court granted the emergency petition in an Order dated February 27, 2019 with 2 of the court’s seven justices dissenting and stating that they would not grant it.  The February 27, 2019 Supreme Court Order suspending the lawyer on an emergency basis is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2019/277/2019-277_disposition_145483_d31i.pdf.  A referee will be appointed.

Bottom line:  This Petition is highly unusual and there may be a question as to whether such conduct constitutes “great public harm” under the Florida bar Rule.  It will certainly be interesting to see how this drama plays out.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Florida Bar Supreme Court opinion provides guidance regarding ethical payments to fact witnesses in litigation

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent (December 28, 2018) Florida Supreme Court opinion which discusses the ethical requirements surrounding witness fees and guidance lawyers regarding Florida Bar Rule 4-3.4(b) which prohibits inducements to fact witnesses to testify.  The case is: Trial Practices, Inc. v. Hahn Loeser & Parks, LLP etc. No. SC17-2058 and the opinion is here: https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/content/download/425462/4585484/file/sc17-2058.pdf

The underlying case involved a dispute between two business partners.  One of the partners hired Trial Practices, Inc. (TPI) for consulting services in the litigation, which ended in a mistrial and was later settled.  After the settlement, TPI claimed the 5% fee based on the value of certain transferred property and the settlement of related litigation involving the partners.

The partner denied owing TPI the 5% fee and claimed that the settlement agreement was a “walk away” agreement with no “gross recovery” to either side.  TPI then sued the partner for breach of the consulting agreement and, in the trial that followed, the jury found for the partner on all issues.  The partner then pursued attorney’s fees and costs from TPI, which challenged the costs, including approximately $236,000.00 paid to “seven fact witnesses’ professional firms,” some of which helped prepare the settlement agreement in the original litigation.

The Second District Court of Appeal upheld most of the trial court’s award of costs and fees to the partner, but certified a question to the Supreme Court as to whether Bar Rule 4-3.4(b) allows payments to witnesses for case and discovery preparation.  The court slightly rephrased the certified question as: 

Whether under the Bar rule a fact witness could be paid for “case and discovery preparation that is not directly related to the witness preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings.” 

The opinion (written by Justice Charles Canady) answers that question in the negative and cautioned lawyers to be careful when compensating witnesses to avoid any perception they are trying to influence the testimony in violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-3.4(b).  That rule prohibits offering inducements to witnesses except for expenses related to testifying, a reasonable fee for expert witnesses, and the language in the pre-2014 version at issue in the case, “reasonable compensation to reimburse a witness for the loss of compensation incurred by reason of preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings…”.  Bar Rule 4-3.4 was amended in 2014 to remove “reimburse” and “loss of compensation” from the language since that language arguably prohibited lawyers from compensating witnesses who have no income.

The opinion states that Rule 4-3.4(b) involves the balancing of concerns over offering or paying inducements for testimony and recognizing the value of the time expended by the witness and providing an incentive to assist with the “truth-seeking function of the trial process.”

“Athough we conclude that ‘preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings’ can reasonably be interpreted to include certain ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation,’ we also reiterate the importance of rule 4-3.4(b) and the prohibition against improperly influencing witnesses…(o)ur disciplinary cases have repeatedly noted – both in the context of rule 4-3.4(b) and otherwise – the importance of avoiding even the appearance of improper influence. Although we do not find these disciplinary cases to be on point, we emphasize the narrow nature of the issue we address here.”

Further:

“permitting payments for any type of ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation’ would not only be inconsistent with the rule’s plain language but could open the door to purchasing testimony under the pretext of such ‘assistance’ and compromise the integrity of the fact-finding process – the very thing rule 4-3.4(b) is designed to prevent. We thus decline to broadly conclude that ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation’ is subsumed within ‘preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings…(h)owever, we also recognize – as this case demonstrates – that there is room for overlap between the two categories. We therefore also decline to adopt a view that effectively treats the two categories as mutually exclusive.

“We think the more appropriate inquiry is whether the witness’s ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation’ is directly related to the witness ‘preparing, attending, or testifying at proceedings.’ Although less than perfectly precise, viewing the payments through that narrower lens is consistent with the language of the rule and avoids prejudicing parties in highly complex cases such as this where they are dependent upon professionals.”

The opinion remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the decision.

Bottom line:  This opinion attempts to clarify the rule regarding ethical payments to fact witnesses in litigation which are not improper inducements and concludes that payments to fact witnesses are permitted only when the assistance of the witness with the case and discovery preparation is directly related to the witness preparing, attending, or testifying at proceedings.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

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