A Pinellas County judge has stopped short of calling for disbarment of local foreclosure defense attorney Mark Stopa, instead recommending he be suspended for a year and limited to appellate work for an additional year.
Circuit Judge Linda Allan, acting as a referee in the Florida Bar’s case against Stopa, also recommended he undergo at least a year of mental health treatment for what she said was "clearly an emotional problem" evidenced by such angry outbursts against some trial judges that they threw him out of their courtrooms.
But in several days of testimony this spring, Allan also heard from appellate judges who called Stopa a well-prepared, intelligent attorney who helped develop foreclosure case law as well as from dozens of supporters who came from as far away as California to describe how he helped them stay in their homes.
"The Florida Bar has recommended disbarment as the appropriate sanction," Allan wrote in her report released late last week. "The Referee understands this perspective, particularly in light of (Stopa’s) persistence in blaming others and resistance to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his belligerent and angry conduct toward judges and others. However, the Referee believes that an attorney of (Stopa’s) legal talent, intellectual abilities and many well-served clients deserves a structured opportunity for rehabilitation."
Both the Bar and Stopa have 60 days to decide if they will appeal the proposed penalty. The Bar hasn’t said what it plans. Asked if he will appeal, Stopa said: "Of course."
"The ruling overlooks mountains of exculpatory and mitigating evidence," he said Tuesday, "and makes findings for which there is no evidence at all."
The final decision is up to the Florida Supreme Court. If it decides to suspend or even disbar Stopa, it would give him a deadline to inform his clients to find new counsel.
During the housing crisis, Stopa became one of Florida’s best known foreclosure defense lawyers, representing as many as 7,000 homeowners by his own estimate. But in at least two cases, according to the Bar, clients nearly lost their homes when he failed to tell them about settlement offers from the banks.
In other cases, judges said he ignored court orders or acted "rude," "belligerent" or disrespectful.
In her recommendation for punishment, Allan listed one aggravating factor as Stopa’s reluctance to acknowledge wrongdoing but a mitigating factor as his "personal or emotional problems." Those, she said, could include "narcissism, defensiveness, lack of self-insight, paranoia and lack of impulse control."
The judge said she had witnessed some of the issues herself during the hearings.
"Respondent has not shown a cooperative attitude toward this proceeding," she wrote. "Within hours after the Referee released her initial report including findings of guilt, (Stopa), demonstrating some of the mental health issues addressed in this report, posted several statements on his Facebook page critical of the proceeding and of the Florida Bar." Among the statements: "(There’s) a conspiracy to take me down" and "No matter what, I was going to be punished for something."
In her report, Allan said she understands why some might find it hard to believe Stopa is capable of rehabilitation in light of his comments that his conduct didn’t "cross the line" although he was repeatedly removed from courtrooms.
"Yet a common symptom of a mental health problem is for an individual to deny there is any such problem," Allan wrote. "While this denial may be an impediment to treatment, experienced mental health professionals are trained to deal with it."
The judge also recommended that Stopa, 41, pay $26,016 in costs related to the Bar’s case against him and that his law practice by reviewed by the Bar’s Diviersion/Discipline Consultation Service.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727)893-8642. Follow @susanskate