Tag Archives: Lawyer disbarment

Florida lawyer disbarred for soliciting and having sex with 2 clients while they were incarcerated in jail

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion disbarring a lawyer who had solicited and sex with 2 clients in they were incarcerated in jail.  The case is The Florida Bar v. Blackburn, No. SC17-1514 and the opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc17-1514.pdf

The Florida Bar’s complaint alleged that the lawyer visited the 2 female clients in jail in Duval County on September 3, 2016.  He deposited money in one client’s bank account to pay for the sex and promised another client free or discounted legal services in exchange for sex.  The lawyer was arrested and pled no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge in the underlying criminal matter on May 25, 2017.

According to media reports, the lawyer showed the clients pornographic images before having sexual contact with them.  One of the clients said then made sexual advances towards her by touching her and forcing her to touch him.  Jail employees became suspicious when they noticed that the lights were out in the room. Criminal investigators also obtained a recorded telephone call that one of the clients made to her friend from the jail explaining what happened.

The Florida Bar and the lawyer entered into a consent agreement for an 18 month suspension with the conditions that the lawyer attend the Florida Bar’s Ethics School, contact Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. (FLA, Inc.) to schedule an evaluation and abide by all recommendations made by FLA, Inc., and pay the Bar’s costs of $1,688.51 before he could be reinstated.  The referee approved the agreement; however, the Court, in a unanimous opinion, disbarred the lawyer.  The lawyer had previously been suspended for 30 days in December 2014 for minor misconduct related to his handling of a child custody case.

The May 24, 2018 opinion states:

“Furthermore, the Court has moved toward imposing harsher sanctions, see Florida Bar v. Herman, 8 So. 3d 1100, 1108 (Fla. 2009), and has stated that it ‘will strictly enforce the rule against lawyers engaging in sexual conduct with a client that exploits the lawyer-client relationship.’ Fla. Bar v. Bryant, 813 So. 2d 38, 44 (Fla. 2002); see Fla. Bar v. Samaha, 557 So. 2d 1349, 1350 (Fla. 1990) (‘Even the slightest hint of sexual coercion or intimidation directed at a client must be avoided at all costs.’).

“In summary, evidenced by this Court’s case law, under no circumstances should an attorney representing a client expose that client to unwanted sexual relations of any kind. Respondent’s conduct, which exploited his clients’ circumstances for his own personal benefit, ‘breeds contempt and distrust of lawyers,’ ‘demonstrates severe moral turpitude,’ and such actions ‘are wholly inconsistent with approved professional standards.’ McHenry, 605 So. 2d at 461.”

Bottom line:  This lawyer engaged in highly improper and criminal conduct and consented to an 18 month suspension; however, the Florida Supreme Court disagreed with that agreement and imposed disbarment.

Be careful out there.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

My law firm focuses on review, analysis, and interpretation of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, advice and representation of lawyers in Bar disciplinary matters, advice and representation of applicants for admission to The Florida Bar before the Board of Bar Examiners, defense of all Florida licensed professionals in discipline and admission matters before all state agencies and boards, expert ethics opinions, and practice management for lawyers and law firms.  If there is a lawyer or other Florida professional license involved, I can defend the complaint or help you get your license. 

If you have any questions or comments, please call me at (727) 799-1688 or e-mail me at jcorsmeier@jac-law.com.  You can find my law firm on the web at www.jac-law.com. In addition to handling individual cases, matters, problems and issues for my clients, I also am on retainer to provide ethics advice to numerous lawyers and law firms throughout the state of Florida.  I also provide legal assistance and advice to numerous individuals and non-legal entities to help insure compliance with the law and rules related to UPL and other issues.

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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 discipline, Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Florida Supreme Court, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer sex with client, Lawyer sex with client in jail, Lawyer soliciting sex with client in jail

Florida lawyer is disbarred for “egregious misconduct” and a pattern of disruptive and “obnoxious” behavior

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent disbarment of a lawyer in south Florida attorney for, inter alia, engaging in “escalating misconduct,” including loudly kicking a table and muttering “lie, lie, lie” during court proceedings.  The case is The Florida Bar v. Robert Joseph Ratiner, No. SC13-539 (Florida Supreme Court 2/22/18), and the opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc13-539.pdf

The lawyer was admitted in 1990 and was disciplined in 2007 after engaging in a rant against opposing counsel for DuPont during a deposition.  He represented some orchid growers who had alleged that DuPont’s fungicide called Benlate had killed their plants.  DuPont’s lawyer attempted to put an exhibit sticker on the lawyer’s laptop.  He then attempted to run around the table toward the other lawyer and yelled at him which, according to the referee’s report, caused the court reporter to state “I can’t work like this!”  That conduct resulted in a 60 day suspension and probation.

The lawyer was then involved in a document review session with DuPont in 2009 and, according to the referee’s report, he loudly called DuPont’s lawyer a “dominatrix,” with “no substantial purpose other than to embarrass” her. He later tried to forcibly take papers from another DuPont lawyer after she told him, “Don’t grab (me) ever again.” That conduct resulted in a three year suspension.

The most recent complaint against the lawyer was related to his conduct in Miami-Dade Circuit Court proceedings that began in late 2011.  The presiding judge stated that she heard the lawyer state “lie, lie, lie” while a DuPont lawyer was conducting a direct examination of his law partner; however, he denied making the comment.  The judge also terminated a hearing because the lawyer was kicking his table so loudly that it was disrupted the proceedings.

The assigned referee conducted hearings and The Florida Bar argued that the lawyer should be disbarred. The referee recommended a three year suspension to begin at the end of the lawyer’s current three year suspension.  In its opinion, the Florida Supreme Court found that the lawyer’s cumulative and egregious misconduct required disbarment.  According to the opinion:

“Disbarment is an extreme form of discipline and is reserved for the most egregious misconduct. See Fla. Bar v. Summers, 728 So. 2d 739, 742 (Fla. 1999); see also Fla. Bar v. Kassier, 711 So. 2d 515, 517 (Fla. 1998) (holding that disbarment is an extreme sanction that should be imposed only in those rare cases where rehabilitation is highly improbable).  Ratiner’s intentional and egregious misconduct continues to demonstrate an attitude that is wholly inconsistent with professional standards, and there is no indication that he is willing to follow the professional ethics of the legal profession. As we observed in (The Florida Bar v.) Norkin,

One can be professional and aggressive without being obnoxious.

Attorneys should focus on the substance of their cases, treating judges

and opposing counsel with civility, rather than trying to prevail by

being insolent toward judges and purposefully offensive toward

opposing counsel. This Court has been discussing professionalism

and civility for years. We do not tolerate unprofessional and

discourteous behavior. We do not take any pleasure in sanctioning

[Respondent], but if we are to have an honored and respected

profession, we are required to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

132 So. 3d at 92-93.

Thus, based upon the foregoing discussion, the Court is left with but one course of action, and that is to disbar Ratiner.”

Bottom line:  This lawyer clearly failed to get the message.  The Supreme Court also did not accept his claims of innocence.  As a result, he was disbarred.

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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Pennsylvania Supreme Court disbars ex-judge who pled guilty to stealing cocaine held in court cases

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion disbarring a former judge who pled guilty to stealing cocaine, from an evidence locker in his courtroom for his own personal use for more than a year.  The case is Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Paul Michael Pozonsky (Case No. 123 DB 2015) (opinion issued January 18, 2018).  The opinion is here: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/DisciplinaryBoard/out/123db2015-pozonsky.pdf#search=%22Paul Pozonsky%22.

According to the disciplinary opinion, “the judge . . . presided over criminal trials, juvenile delinquency hearings, and also directed the rehabilitative disposition of drug offenders in that county’s Drug Court, which he founded. Using his position as a jurist, he directed police officers and court personnel to bring cocaine, which was evidence in the cases over which he was presiding, to an evidence locker in his courtroom; whereupon, for over a year, he stole quantities of this illegal drug from that locker and used it for his own recreational purposes, all while continuing to preside over criminal prosecutions and imposing sentences on defendants for committing crimes which he himself was contemporaneously engaging in.”

“After Pozonsky’s illicit activities were discovered, he resigned his judicial commission and was convicted for his crimes. After considering all the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding Pozonsky’s egregious misconduct while a commissioned judge, and taking into account the mitigating evidence he offered, the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (“Disciplinary Board” or “Board”) issued a unanimous report detailing its factual findings and its recommendation that he be disbarred.”

The opinion further stated that “(t)here are few transgressions which more seriously undermine the public’s confidence and trust in the integrity of their judicial system, and which are as offensive to the high standards and principles which other members of the bench and bar strive so faithfully to uphold in the performance of their duties, than those committed by Pozonsky.”

The ex-judge pled guilty in 2015 to charges related to the theft of the cocaine, including misdemeanor theft, obstruction of justice, and misapplication of entrusted property and served one month in jail.

Oral arguments were held in April 2017 and the ex-judge stated in mitigation that he had accepted full responsibility for his conduct and engaged in community service, including working at a homeless mission and counseling others with addiction as mitigating factors in an effort to reduce the disciplinary sanction.  The court rejected the ex-judge’s argument that his addiction should be considered as a mitigating factor.

The disciplinary opinion concluded: “Because the evidence of record amply supports the Board’s findings and corresponding recommendation of disbarment, we order Pozonsky’s disbarment to both protect the public and to preserve the integrity of the legal profession.”

Bottom line:  This is an extremely egregious case of an apparently addicted judge who asked law enforcement to bring cocaine to his courtroom to “hold” in criminal cases (not sure how that would happen) and then stole the cocaine from the locker and used it for “his own recreational; purposes.”  A concurring opinion stated that disbarment was not automatic and mused that it was ironic that the ex-judge was not able to mitigate the disbarment by showing that he was addicted but agreed that disbarment was appropriate.

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 lawyer who improperly advised clients regarding marijuana business resulting in their arrest and charged $799 for false marijuana card is disbarred

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion disbarring a Florida lawyer who, inter alia, incompetently advised a client regarding a marijuana growing business and charged individuals $799.00 for a falsified “patient identification card” he claimed could keep them from getting arrested for having or growing marijuana.    The case is The Florida Bar v. Ian James Christiansen (Case No. SC16-1081) (January 18, 2018).  The Supreme Court opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc16-1081.pdf

According to the opinion, The Florida Bar filed a complaint against the Jacksonville lawyer in 2016, which was assigned to a referee who held hearings.  The referee found that “in 2013, less than three months after being admitted to The Florida Bar, Respondent founded IJC Law Group, P.A., and began offering legal services and advice to clients.  At the time, Respondent had no training in the area of medical marijuana. Six months later, Respondent formed Health Law Services (HLS), and five months after that, incorporated Cannabinoid Therapy Institute (CTI). Respondent listed IJC Law Group, P.A., as CTI’s registered agent and nonlawyer Christopher Ralph—a self-professed expert in the medical marijuana industry— represented himself as CTI’s director. Ralph was also the ‘Legal Administrator and Consultant’ for HLS.”

The referee also found that the lawyer charged clients $799 for a doctor’s visit through CTI.  If the doctor found a medical necessity for the client to use marijuana, the lawyer, through HLS, provided the client with an “Official Legal Certification” and patient identification card stating that he or she had received a marijuana prescription.

The referee also found that the “doctor” to whom the lawyer referred three of the clients was not licensed to practice medicine in Florida (and the clients were not told of this”.  Two of the lawyer’s clients were provided with an “Official Legal Certification” and a “grow sign” to be posted at their residence which stated that medical marijuana cultivation was underway. The third client was provided an “Official Legal Certification” that identified one of the clients with the “grow sign” as his “authorized agent” to produce cannabis medically necessary to treat his debilitating condition.

According to the opinion, “(t)his ‘Official Legal Certification’ purported to advise law enforcement of the client’s right to cannabis as a medical necessity. Respondent advised his clients, and his clients believed, that based on Florida law, the clients had a right to possess, use, and grow cannabis due to medical necessity and that they were protected by the affirmative defense of medical necessity. Respondent did not tell his clients that this affirmative defense would not apply, if at all, until after the clients were arrested, charged, and prosecuted.”

The referee found that a number of the lawyer’s clients were arrested and prosecuted after following the lawyer’s advice.  Somewhat unbelievably, the lawyer refused to refund the fees that he charged after the clients were charged.  The lawyer was ordered to refund the fees when the trial court granted the clients’ motion for disgorgement of attorney’s fees; however, he failed to comply with the order and filed an untimely notice of appeal, which was dismissed. He also failed to respond to the trial court’s order to show cause and failed to appear at the show cause hearing. The court granted the motion for order to show cause and issued a warrant for his arrest.

“In January 2015, the police responded to the residence of the clients with the ‘grow sign’ pursuant to a 911 call.  The next day, the clients contacted Respondent to ask him if they needed to dismantle their growing operation, in expectation that law enforcement would return, and were told by Respondent they had nothing to worry about and that he or someone from his office would contact law enforcement  to discuss the situation. There was no record that Respondent ever did this. In February 2015, a fully armed SWAT team raided the clients’ home, and they were arrested and charged with manufacture of cannabis, possession of cannabis with intent to sell or deliver, possession of a place or structure for trafficking or manufacturing a controlled substance, possession of paraphernalia, and trafficking in cannabis in excess of twenty-five pounds. In response to their arrests, Respondent encouraged the clients to file an internal affairs report regarding the damage done to their home and belongings during the raid. The clients’ home, valuables, and vehicles were ultimately seized and detained for forfeiture.”

“The clients then hired a new attorney and accepted plea deals of three years’ probation, a $15,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service. One of the clients lost her nursing license of twenty-five years and the other lost his engineering job of fifteen years. In addition, their landlord sued them for damages to the home during the raid and lost rent. The landlord prevailed and obtained a judgment in excess of $25,000 against them.”

The referee recommended that the lawyer be found guilty of violating multiple Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, be suspended for two years, and pay the Bar’s costs.  Neither the Bar nor the lawyer filed petitions for review of the referee report and recommendations; however, on July 26, 2017, the Supreme Court issued an order “requiring the lawyer to show cause why the recommended sanction should not be disapproved and a more severe sanction, including disbarment, be imposed.” The lawyer filed a response on August 10, 2017, and the Bar filed a reply on August 21, 2017.

After reviewing the response and reply, the Court found that disbarment was the appropriate sanction citing the lawyer’s incompetence and the extremely serious harm to clients. The opinion also noted that the lawyer “erroneously advised his clients and provided them with legally meaningless ‘Official Legal Certifications’ purportedly authorizing them to grow and use marijuana, based on determinations made by a physician not licensed to practice medicine in the State of Florida. Several clients who relied upon Respondent’s erroneous advice were arrested and criminally prosecuted, and their lives were devastated. Further, during the criminal proceedings pertaining to the clients and during the proceedings in this disciplinary matter, Respondent continued to insist on the correctness of his clearly erroneous legal positions, until he was ordered to show cause to this Court why he should not be disbarred. We will not tolerate such misconduct by members of The Florida Bar.”  The opinion disbarred the lawyer effective immediately.

Bottom line:  This is a quite egregious example of a lawyer’s incompetence (or worse) resulting in a nightmare of consequences for the clients, including a SWAT team raid and criminal charges and convictions.  As this case shows, a lawyer’s advice to clients regarding allegedly legal marijuana growing businesses is fraught with uncertainly and the wrong advice may result in extremely serious consequences for the clients (and the lawyer), particularly with the recent by the recent announcement by the U.S. Attorney General that the federal government will enforce federal criminal laws related to marijuana even if it is legal in an individual state.

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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Arizona lawyer disbarred upon consent for disparaging book about his client Jodi Arias which violated client confidentiality

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent disbarment of an Arizona lawyer who represented notorious murder defendant Jodi Arias and published a book with disparaging details about the representation and revealing attorney/client confidential information without the consent of the client.  The case is In the Matter of Laurence K. Nurmi, Case No. PDJ-2016-9115.

The lawyer began representing Jodi Arias as an assistant public defender.  She was charged in the lurid and violent murder of her boyfriend in Arizona in 2008 and was found guilty of first degree murder in May 2013; however, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence her to death.

Another sentencing hearing was held in the fall of 2014 and that jury voted 11-1 to sentence Arias to death.  The death penalty vote must be unanimous in Arizona and Arias was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in April 2015.  She has appealed the verdict and sentence.

Sometime in 2015, the lawyer began writing a book detailing his representation of Arias without written/oral permission or authority from Arias to publish or disseminate any information related to the representation.  According to the allegations, the book presents a negative view of Arias and the case.  The lawyer’s self-published book, Trapped with Ms. Arias: Part 1 of 3 From Getting the File to Being Ready for Trial (Volume 1), was released in 2015.

The book includes multiple confidential discussions between the lawyer, Arias, and her family. The book also provides details of the case, makes disparaging remarks, and makes several statements regarding the substance of witness interviews and inadmissible exhibits.  The lawyer also continued to disclose and explain certain facts and circumstances in the book related to his representation of Arias in promotional radio interviews.

In October 2016, the State Bar of Arizona filed a formal complaint against the lawyer for revealing attorney-client confidential information about Arias and her case in the book.  The lawyer attempted to settle the case with a 4 year suspension; however, Jodi Arias objected to that sanction.

Immediately after the announcement of the consent agreement, the Maricopa County public defender, James Haas, objected to the Arizona Bar because the agreement did not specifically order the lawyer to stop violating ethical rules with regard to the Arias case, including revealing confidential information, since the book was listed as one of 3 volumes.

The lawyer filed a request for disbarment on November 14, 2016.  The presiding disciplinary judge accepted the lawyer’s request on November 21, 2016 and issued an order making the disbarment effective the same day.

Bottom line:  This lawyer chose to write a book in a highly publicized and lurid case which disparaged his client and revealed attorney/client confidential information, including conversations with her and her family and disparaging comments.  Aria’s conviction is currently on appeal and it has been alleged that information in the book may jeopardize that appeal.

All lawyers should be aware that, unless the client provides informed consent, a lawyer is strictly prohibited from revealing attorney/client confidential information, even after the representation has been concluded.

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 disbars 3 lawyers for misconduct in the settlement of multiple PIP and bad faith claims

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida which disbarred 3 Florida lawyers for misconduct in settling multiple PIP and bad faith claims.  The opinion is The Florida Bar v. Charles Jay Kane, The Florida Bar v. Harley Nathan Kane, The Florida Bar v. Darin James Lentner, No. SC13-388 (October 6, 2016) and the opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2016/sc13-388.pdf.

The lengthy opinion outlines and discusses the complicated underlying facts, including the involvement of the lawyers in settling the PIP claims and failing to inform and misleading both the clients and the lawyers who were handling separate bad faith claims against Progressive Insurance.   Although this is a fairly lengthy Ethics Alert, the relatively short format of my Ethics Alerts do not permit a full discussion of the case, and readers are urged to read the case for more information and clarification.

According to the opinion, the lawyers took on the representation of 441 PIP claims on behalf of various medical providers.  Two other lawyers were retained to file bad faith claims.  The claims were filed in a matter called the “Goldcoast” litigation, in which only 37 of the PIP clients were involved.  Each of the PIP law firms (Kane & Kane, Watson & Lentner, and Marks & Fleischer) and each of the bad faith attorneys executed a contract agreeing to jointly represent all thirty-seven plaintiffs.

During the bad faith litigation, the bad faith lawyers were able to compel disclosure of documents which strengthened the bad faith claims.  At mediation on the bad faith claims, Progressive offered only $3.5 million, which offer was rejected.

The disclosure of the documents apparently caused Progressive to consider settlement.  Progressive’s counsel later initiated settlement negotiations with the PIP lawyers only and the bad faith lawyers were not part of those negotiations.  Progressive  offered an aggregate amount of $14.5 million, to settle all of the claims, including both the PIP and bad faith claims, and attorney fees.  On May 16, 2004, all six of the PIP lawyers (including the disbarred lawyers) met with lawyers from Progressive to put the agreement in writing.  The bad faith lawyers were not told of Progressive’s offers, and they were not asked to attend the meeting.

“As a result of the meeting, the PIP lawyers signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MOU) settling all cases and claims, subject to client agreement.  Pursuant to the MOU, the clients were required to release all claims against Progressive, including both PIP claims and bad faith claims. The MOU did not specify how the settlement funds would be allocated and it was left to the PIP lawyers to divide the funds between the claims and the costs and fees.”

“The only requirement to trigger the $14.5 million payment was a certain number of signed client releases: 100 percent of the named Goldcoast case plaintiffs and 80 percent of the remaining PIP clients of all three PIP firms. Also as a part of the MOU, the PIP lawyers agreed to defend, indemnify, and hold the Progressive entities harmless from any claims of their clients.  Several days later, the PIP lawyers, including the disbarred lawyers, met with one of the bad faith lawyers, Larry Stewart, and offered him $300,000 to compensate all three bad faith attorneys for their work on the bad faith case. The PIP lawyers did not disclose the terms of the settlement with Progressive, stating only that the cases and claims had been settled.”

According to the opinion, “the bad faith attorneys then wrote a letter to each of the named plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case, explaining their efforts to compel production of Progressive’s internal documents and the April 2004 mediation. The letter asserted that as a result of the PIP lawyers’ secret settlement with Progressive, the clients’ bad faith claims may have been ‘compromised or even sacrificed.’”

“The bad faith attorneys sent a copy of their letter to each of the PIP law firms and asked the PIP lawyers to forward the letter to their clients who were not named in the Goldcoast case; however, the lawyers did not forward the letter as requested. Instead, Respondent Charles Kane drafted a letter, titled ‘Notice of Disagreement Between Counsel’ (disagreement letter), for the PIP law firms to send to clients who were named as plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case.  The letter contained misleading statements regarding the bad faith attorneys and their efforts to pursue the bad faith claims on behalf of the clients.”

An Amended Memorandum of Understanding (AMOU) was later drafted and, after the law firm contacted the clients and obtained the releases, the settlement funds were paid by Progressive.  Kane & Kane received $5.25 million. The firm paid $672,742 to its PIP clients, $433,202 in costs, and took $4,144,055 in attorney fees. Watson & Lentner received $3,075,000, and the firm paid $361,470 to its PIP clients, $190,736 in costs, and took $2,522,792 in attorney fees. Once the firms received the settlement money, the bad faith attorneys were discharged, and a notice of voluntary dismissal with prejudice was filed, ending the Goldcoast case.

The bad faith lawyers then sued the PIP lawyers and, in April 2008, Judge David F. Crow entered a final judgment in favor of the bad faith attorneys on their quantum meruit and/or unjust enrichment claims. The final judgment included extensive findings as to the PIP lawyers’ actions, noting that the matter “could be a case study for a course on professional conduct involving multi-party joint representation agreements and the ethical pitfalls surrounding such agreements.”

The Supreme Court opinion upheld the finding of guilt and rule violations made by the referee and disbarred all three lawyers.  “We agree with the referee that the PIP lawyers’ most egregious violation occurred when they abandoned their clients’ bad faith claims in favor of a greater fee for themselves.”  The opinion states that the “considerable violation of (the lawyers’) ethical responsibilities to their clients and the legal system, entirely for their own financial interests and at the expense of their clients, warrants disbarment.

Bottom line:  The 3 lawyers were disbarred for the misconduct which is briefly described above and is further detailed in the opinion.

The opinion also addressed a very important practice point for lawyers who handle PIP claims on behalf of medical providers since it upheld the referee’s findings that all three lawyers failed to provide their clients with closing statements in the PIP cases in violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(f).  “Although there was testimony presented to the referee that a closing statement is not typically provided in a PIP case because the attorney fee is not taken as a portion of the client’s overall recovery, the referee found, and we agree, that there is no specific exception in the Bar Rules authorizing this practice.”  The Court found that lawyers must provide closing statements to clients in PIP first party claims, even though the fees and costs are typically paid by the insurance company and not taken out of the client’s settlement funds.

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

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer conflict of interest, Lawyer disbarment, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(f) failure to provide closing statement