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Herssein law firm files emergency motion with Florida Supreme Court to quash 3rd DCA opinion and order claiming violation of stay

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent (December 13, 2017) Motion to Quash filed by the Herssein law firm in the Florida Supreme Court proceeding challenging a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge’s denial of a motion to disqualify a lawyer who was a former judge and “friend” of the judge on Facebook.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC17-1848).  The Herssein law firm’s Motion to Quash is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_motion_115391_motion2dother20substantive.pdf.

The law firm filed an emergency motion on December 13, 2017 asking the Florida Supreme Court to quash a December 13, 2017 3rd DCA opinion quashing two discovery orders and an order granting fees to USAA, claiming that the opinion and order violated the Supreme Court’s Stay Order dated December 7, 2017.

As I previously blogged, the Herssein law firm moved to disqualify the judge from a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which a lawyer who represented a non-party USAA employee in the matter was identified as a potential witness/party.  The law firm argued that the judge could not be impartial in the case and cited JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009), which states: “Listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”  In 2012, the 4th DCA relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the criminal prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko found that she was not required to recuse herself from the case and the Herssein firm asked the Florida Supreme Court to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the decision under Article V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const., and Rule 9.030(a)(2)(A)(iii) and (iv).  In a December 7, 2017 Order, the Court issued a stay of the lower court proceedings and, in an Order dated December 11, 2017, accepted jurisdiction and provided a briefing schedule.

Bottom line:  In a strange turn of events, the law firm has filed a motion claiming that the 3rd DCA rendered an opinion and order which violate the Florida Supreme Court’s stay of the lower court proceedings and asking the Supreme Court to quash the opinion and order.

Stay tuned…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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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Florida Supreme Court dismisses Florida Bar’s petition proposing substantial revisions to lawyer referral service rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert Update which will update my August 1, 2016 Ethics Alert and will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Order (May 3, 2017) dismissing the Bar’s petition for approval of the proposed substantial revisions to the Bar Rules related to lawyer referral services.

The proposed rules would have substantially revised the current rules, changed the name of the referral companies to “matching services” and “qualifying providers”, specifically prohibited fee splitting and deleted the disclaimer that the entity is a lawyer referral service.  The proposed rules would not have limited ownership to lawyers only or referrals to lawyers only.

The case is: In Re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar-Subchapter 4-7 (Lawyer Referral Services, Case No.: SC16-1470 and the Supreme Court’s Order May 3, 2017 is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/1470/2016-1470_disposition_138549.pdf

Under the proposed amendments, which were approved by the Florida Bar Board of Governors in 2016, any private entities that connect consumers looking for legal services with lawyers would have been called “qualifying providers” regardless of whether they were “traditional” referral services (such as ASK-GARY or 411 PAIN) or a technology-based provider (such as AVVO or LegalZoom).

The Florida Bar’s website has a page summarizing the proposed rule revisions as well as a frequently asked questions section and comparison chart.  The link to that page is here:  http://www.floridabar.org/proposedlrsamend#Overview.

The May 3, 2017 Florida Supreme Court Order states:

Previously, in In re Amend. to Rule Reg. The Fla. Bar 4-7.22—Lawyer Referral Services, 175 So. 3d 779, 781 (Fla. 2015), the Court rejected amendments to Rule Regulating the Florida Bar 4-7.22 proposed by The Florida Bar and directed the Bar to propose amendments that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.” In this case, the Bar proposes amendments to rule 4-7.22 that do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar. (emphasis supplied).

The Court having considered the Bar’s prior petition, the amendments proposed in this case, the comments filed, the Bar’s response, and having had the benefit of oral argument, the Bar’s petition in this case is hereby dismissed without prejudice to allow the members of this Court to engage in informed discussions with the Bar and those who are in favor or against the proposed regulation of matching and other similar services. The Court lacks sufficient background information on such services and their regulation at this time.

No rehearing will be entertained by this Court.

Bottom line:  As I previously stated, if approved by the Florida Supreme Court, the proposed revisions would have substantially altered the rules for lawyer referral services; however, the proposed rules would not have limited ownership to lawyers nor referrals only to lawyers.  This Order makes it clear that the that the proposed rules “do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include ‘matching services’ and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.”

The Florida Bar will now ponder the language of the Supreme Court’s Order in considering potential future proposed lawyer referral rule revisions.  Stay tuned…

…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.

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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Florida Supreme Court finds that attorney-client privilege prohibits inquiries into lawyer/doctor referral relationships

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the important very recent Florida Supreme Court opinion which prohibit inquiries by defense counsel into referral relationships between the plaintiff’s law firm and a physician.  The case is Worley v. Central Florida Young Men’s Christian Ass’n, Inc., No. SC15-1086 (Fla. SC April 13, 2017).  The Florida Supreme Court opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2017/sc15-1086.pdf

The Florida Supreme Court considered the case because of a certified conflict under art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. in the opinions of the Fifth District Court of Appeal (in this case) and the Second District Court of Appeal (in Burt v. Government Employees Ins. Co., 603 So. 2d 125 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992).

According to the opinion, Heather Worley was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against YMCA after she allegedly fell in a Florida YMCA parking lot.  Worley was represented by Morgan & Morgan.  At Worley’s depositions, YMCA’s lawyer asked if she was referred to her specialists by her attorneys and Worley’s lawyer objected on the ground that the information was attorney-client privileged.

YMCA then served interrogatories directed to specific doctors employed by three medical providers with whom Worley treated and also served a supplemental request to produce to Morgan & Morgan, to attempt to establish the existence of a referral relationship between Morgan & Morgan and the treating physicians.  The opinion states that “(t)hese efforts were based on YMCA’s suspicions that there was a ‘cozy agreement’ between Morgan & Morgan and the physicians, due to the amounts of Worley’s medical bills.”

Worley objected (through Morgan & Morgan) and stated that the discovery requests were “overbroad, vague, unduly and financially burdensome, irrelevant and in violation [of] allowable discovery pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.280(b)(4).”  She also contended that Morgan & Morgan does not maintain “information for treating physicians as in this matter, or otherwise.”

At a hearing on Worley’s objections, “the trial court only sustained Worley’s objection to the question regarding whether she was referred to the doctors by her attorneys and ‘did not address Worley’s objections to YMCA’s other outstanding discovery requests at that time.’”  The Fifth DCA upheld the lower court’s order and relied on Florida district court decisions which held that the financial relationship between a law firm and a plaintiff’s treating physician is discoverable if evidence of a referral relationship can be shown.  Those cases relied upon the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Allstate Ins. Co. v. Boecher, 733 So. 2d 993 (Fla. 1999).

In its 4-3 decision, the Court rejected the application of Boecher and found that the defense attorneys were prohibited from inquiring about the referral relationships between plaintiff’s firm, Morgan & Morgan, and Sea Spine Orthopedic Institute stating that “(a)llowing further discovery into a possible relationship between the physician and the plaintiff’s law firm would only serve to uncover evidence that, even if relevant, would require the production of communications and materials that are protected by attorney-client privilege.”  “We do not agree with the Fifth District’s attempt to circumvent the attorney-client privilege out of perceived necessity. The attorney-client privilege is the oldest confidential communication privilege known in the common law.”

“Even in cases where a plaintiff’s medical bills appear to be inflated for the purposes of litigation, we do not believe that engaging in costly and time-consuming discovery to uncover a “cozy agreement” between the law firm and a treating physician is the appropriate response. We are concerned that this type of discovery would have a chilling effect on doctors who may refuse to treat patients who could end up in litigation out of fear of becoming embroiled in the litigation themselves. Moreover, we worry that discovery orders such as the one in this case will inflate the costs of litigation to the point that some plaintiffs will be denied access to the courts, as attorneys will no longer be willing to advance these types of costs. Finally, attempting to discover this information requires the disclosure of materials that would otherwise be protected under the attorney-client privilege.”

The Supreme Court opinion quashed Fifth DCA’s decision permitting the discovery and approved the decision of the Second DCA.

Bottom line: This case is important since it addresses and appears to settle the question of whether the defense in a personal injury case (or any case) can use discovery to attempt to determine if there is a “cozy” relationship between the plaintiff’s law firm and treating medical providers.  The opinion found that the information sought was protected by the attorney/client privilege, §90.502(2), Fla. Stat., and that the discovery was prohibited.

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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Filed under .S. Supreme Court, attorney/client privilege, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege discovery of referral relationships with doctors, Confidentiality and privilege, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics duties re subpoena for client confidential documents and information, prohibition of inquiries into lawyer/doctor referrals