Thursday, June 21, 2018
Business

For the Florida Bar, bad lawyers are more than a punch line

Palm Harbor attorney Angela Morton Armstrong charged hefty fees to handle bankruptcy cases for people hoping to shed their debts and make a fresh start.

There was just one problem, records show: She collected the money but did little if any work.

After numerous clients complained, Armstrong was suspended from practicing law in 2014 and again last year. Finally, in April, she was disbarred.

Armstrong is among 48 Tampa Bay lawyers and 430 statewide who have been slapped with that draconian punishment since 2011. The most recent were three Tampa lawyers permanently disbarred this year — two last week and one in January — for setting up a DUI sting of the opposing counsel in a highly publicized trial.

"Those set of facts were very unique and the (Florida Supreme) Court in its recent opinion even commented that this was unique even to them,'' said Adria Quintela, director of the Florida Bar's Department of Lawyer Regulation.

But while the justices blasted the trio for especially "shocking'' and "unethical'' conduct, the 427 other disgraced lawyers also taint a profession that the public holds in generally low regard. (Lawyer jokes are legion: Why won't sharks attack lawyers? A: Professional courtesy.)

"I think in every profession there are bad apples, and lawyers are no different from any other profession,'' Quintela said. "We at the Bar take our role extremely seriously in doing the best we can do to protect the public, and most of the time we are very successful in doing that.''

Every year, the Bar gets thousands of complaints about lawyers; this fiscal year alone, it has opened 4,613 new cases.

"A number''' — Quintela couldn't say how many — never make it past the grievance committee, a volunteer panel of attorneys and lay people who decide whether there is probable cause that a lawyer violated Bar rules.

If the committee does find probable cause, charges are filed with the state Supreme Court. It appoints a referee — a county or circuit judge — who hears witnesses, receives evidence and recommends discipline, if any. The lawyer and the Bar's governing board can appeal the recommendation, but the Supreme Court's decision on guilt and discipline is final.

Lawyers in trouble often turn to Tampa attorney Scott Tozian.

Over the course of a 38-year career, Tozian estimates, he has represented as many as 4,000 fellow members of the Bar. The way they react to complaints runs the gamut, he said.

"We have people who have relatively minor problems; they say, 'You are the doctor, you take care of it' and I don't hear from them very often, or they 're nervous Nellies who call me three times a week,'' Tozian said. "It just depends on the personality of the client. I have had clients who were in relatively hot water who didn't show the kind of concern you would think someone would in that situation.''

Florida's highest court can impose a range of punishments, including relatively minor ones like a public reprimand. The most serious penalties are a five-year disbarment and permanent disbarment. In general, the justices are toughest on lawyers who steal from clients.

"It goes to the core of the attorney-client relationship, which is trust,'' Quintela said. "There are a lot of things that an attorney can do that maybe were a mistake. But it's hard to justify an intentional act, and theft is one of those intentional acts of misconduct that the court and the Bar take very seriously.''

Lawyers disbarred for five years can apply for readmission but only about 5 percent do, the Bar says. So how do they make a living once their legal careers are over?

Tozian had one client who became a long-distance truck driver. Another bagged groceries. Some go to work in law firms but are not allowed to handle money or have any contact with clients.

The three recently disbarred Tampa lawyers — Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut — have not indicated their plans. Filthaut, though, is listed in corporate records as a managing member of a relatively new Tampa company that repairs auto glass.

For some lawyers, prison was the next step after disbarment.

Among her many violations of Bar rules, Brandon attorney Jennifer Aycock Bonifield failed to account for nearly $900,000 of a client's money, a referee found. Bonifield was convicted of grand theft last year and spent eight months in state prison.

In January, Michael Crowder, a Bradenton lawyer and U.S. Army judge advocate, was disbarred after his conviction on federal wire and mail fraud charges. While attending the University of Florida law school under an Army program, the FBI said, Crowder sold coins and precious metals to customers in the United States and abroad but failed to deliver the merchandise. Among his excuses: He had been ill, his inventory had stolen and his suppliers didn't have the items.

Crowder, who was ordered to pay his victims $1.2 million in restitution, is serving a five-year sentence in a federal correctional institute in Yazoo, Miss.

And in Pinellas County, former prosecutor-turned-private attorney Aaron Slavin was disbarred in 2013 after he pleaded guilty to taking 250 oxycodone pills from a client as payment for legal services. (The client turned out to be a police informer. ) Slavin served about two-thirds of a three-year prison sentence.

None of the disbarred lawyers mentioned in this story could be reached for comment. And even while she was still in practice, Armstrong, the bankruptcy lawyer, proved elusive, records show.

Some of the more than 20 clients who complained about Armstrong said she failed to show up at bankruptcy hearings or stopped communicating with them after taking their money. Several others said they paid her $1,000 or more to handle their bankruptcy cases but that she never filed the petition needed to get the case started. Even the Bar had a hard time getting her to respond to its letters to her.

The 40-year-old Armstrong is also being sued by a Clearwater couple. They thought she was "zealously and effectively'' representing them in a foreclosure case, only to discover she had been suspended from practicing law at the time. They later lost their house in a foreclosure auction.

Records show Armstrong hasn't responded to the lawsuit, either.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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