TAMPA — Personal injury lawyer Bill Winters behaved badly — very badly — when he ditched Richard Mulholland's law firm in 2001 to set up his own shop, an appeals court said Friday.
He copied client files and removed documents. He misled clients into thinking Mulholland was retiring. His paramour hacked into the firm's computer system and altered clients' information to make it harder for his ex-boss to contact them.
"The facts in this case," 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Craig Villanti wrote, "are enough to make any legal ethics professor cringe."
Mulholland took his protege to court two years ago and proved theft occurred, appellate judges ruled. But he failed to show that Winters' behavior, "loathsome as it might have been," caused clients to leave or any loss of money for the elder attorney's firm.
As a result, the appeals court ruled that Winters does not have to pay his former boss the nearly $1.5 million civil theft judgment entered against him by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen.
"Mulholland established Winters' bad actions," the opinion stated. "He also established that certain clients left his firm and went with Winters. But he failed to present any evidence that would even tend to show that Winters' lies and misrepresentations caused the clients to leave the Mulholland firm."
Winters handled the major litigation for Mulholland's firm before leaving abruptly in 2001 and taking 12 of the most lucrative cases with him. He and another Mulholland alumnus, Marc Yonker, formed a new firm and began plastering their faces on billboards and phone book covers.
Mulholland sued them both for civil theft, and a jury and judge found in his favor.
Yonker, who jurors felt should bear less of the blame, already has paid his former boss about $800,000 in damages, Mulholland said. For reasons unclear Friday, Yonker did not appeal the final judgment against him. Neither he nor his attorney returned calls for comment.
Despite the harsh tone appeals judges used to describe Winters' actions, Winters' attorney said he and his client were pleased that the court reversed the entire judgment.
"It's gratifying to see that the court recognized that there wasn't any harm to Mr. Mulholland," attorney Stuart Markman said.
Mulholland, not surprisingly, had a different take on the court's opinion.
"I think it's a very poor decision," he said, adding that he was considering bringing his cause to a higher court.
"It's not over yet," he said.
During oral arguments last month, Mulholland's attorneys argued that Winters' conduct was so unprofessional that damages should be presumed. The appellate panel said such a presumption was tempting given the facts of the case, but not supported by precedent.
Winters could still face disciplinary action by the Florida Bar. As of Friday, none had been taken.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.