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Brash Tampa lawyer attracts attention, both good and bad

Civil trial lawyer Michael Laurato is bold and unapologetic about his tactics, but he has drawn the ire of the Florida Bar.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Civil trial lawyer Michael Laurato is bold and unapologetic about his tactics, but he has drawn the ire of the Florida Bar.

TAMPA

Michael Laurato hasn't grabbed many headlines during his 11-year legal career.

But once you notice him, you wonder how he ever escaped your attention.

"Some people like to come in under the radar," said his law partner, Robert Austin. "He's a B-52. He's bombs away."

Laurato, 37, walks into his office wearing a tailor-made pinstripe suit, a chunky cigar jutting from his lips. His hair is wavy, like the manes of the four lion statues flanking his desk.

He talks about winning and losing extravagant sums racing thoroughbreds. In September, his horse, Severe Weather, finished last in the Pennsylvania Derby, dashing hopes for a $1 million purse.

A certificate on Laurato's wall shows he has won at least that much for a single client in civil litigation, an arena where he's known to dig into opponents with a smile on his face. In an early victory, he collected $491,720 in attorney's fees on a $30,000 stolen Ferrari claim.

"I'm not really intimidated by the odds, by power, by position," he said. "I could care less about popularity contests."

That's fortunate, because he wouldn't often win one.

He goes to a baseball game and hears a stranger sneer his name. The critic could be anyone. "Who knows, I may have sued them or I may have cross-examined them," he says. His tactics have drawn rebuke from judges, a court reporter and the Florida Bar. "But I have my fans, too."

Laurato is unapologetic. He refuses to back down. And when he thinks he's right but isn't getting his way, he does for himself what he does for clients.

He sues.

It might sound redundant to say Laurato is a civil trial lawyer who sues. Part of the job description, right?

He battles insurance companies that turn down claims for sinkholes and stolen cars. His client list includes ousted Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, who insists the county's insurance policy should cover his legal bill for his sexual harassment trial.

But Laurato doesn't stop there.

He has sued veterinarians who treat his thoroughbreds at racetracks and the insurance provider that wouldn't pay for a rental car when his burglarized Bentley needed repair.

He sued Montblanc for trying to charge him to fix a leaking, limited-edition fountain pen.

And he sued Columbia Restaurant president Richard Gonzmart, his former father-in-law, for calling him a loser at the courthouse.

One of his adversaries joked that he would sue his own mother if he had the chance.

"Maybe," Laurato said. "If you do me wrong, I'm gonna come getcha."

He wins some cases, loses others, and makes enemies along the way.

Three years after billing Laurato's firm $481 for a transcript, the owner of a California court reporting service remains tied up in small claims litigation with the lawyer. She started a blog to vent her frustration.

"If people sue him for services and goods, he turns around and sues them," said the owner, Susan DeMichelle. "He needs to be stopped."

"He's a real jerk," said Tim Baker, president of Naffco in Tampa, a company that fought Laurato in court after he refused to pay for shutters installed in his home. "His attitude is, 'I'm not going to pay you. If you don't like it, screw it, sue me.' "

Laurato doesn't consider himself litigious. He prefers amicable resolutions, but says things just seem to turn ugly and personal. And he can't very well mediate disputes with a tussle in the park like he did during his high school days at Jesuit in Tampa.

"I can pay," he said, pulling a thick wad of cash from his pocket. "That's not the problem. But I'm not going to pay something that I'm rightfully owed. It's just not right."

He figures he got some of his fighting spirit from his father, an Italian from New York who taught his son the art of handicapping horses. Laurato says he butted heads with authority from an early age, getting kicked out of Corpus Christi Catholic School in Temple Terrace for throwing a paper ball at a nun.

It was through his mother, a manicurist from Cuba, that he was introduced to the law.

He sometimes tagged along when she did Frank De La Grana's nails, and he remembers being impressed by the criminal defense lawyer's style. He later came to admire the work ethic of Barry Cohen and the tenaciousness of Arnold Levine — Tampa lawyers who don't get pushed around.

Laurato earned a law degree from George Washington University, then returned home.

One friend calls him the ultimate advocate — he isn't afraid to speak his mind and usually has the law to back him up.

"He acts out of principle," said Howard Levine, a Miami Beach lawyer. "If people don't upset him, he's generous with everybody."

• • •

Laurato wanted the wooden shutters installed in time for a spectacular holiday bash.

"I had plans," he said in a deposition. "I envisioned beautiful white shutters intertwined with Christmas lights surrounded by holly. I envisioned, during Christmas, a beautiful woman walking under my French doors with a piece of mistletoe hanging there."

When the shutters didn't arrive, he called off the party. He tried to cancel the contract. When the shutters got installed anyway, he refused to pay the $3,600 balance.

The company sued. Laurato sued back.

He wound up paying for both the shutters and, by one account, $40,000 of his opponent's attorney's fees.

The fight didn't stop there.

The Florida Bar took issue with the lawyer testifying during his deposition that he had never been sued for breach of contract when, in fact, he had. Laurato said he didn't do anything wrong.

A judge was assigned to referee the dispute. After hearing all the evidence, he wrote a report to the Florida Supreme Court.

These are some of the words he used to describe Laurato's answers.

Sarcastic.

Flippant.

Argumentative.

Nonsensical.

Laurato has not been previously disciplined. But the judge recommended he be found guilty of misconduct, and the Bar wants to yank his license for 60 days.

Some lawyers might take their licks and move on. Not Laurato. He filed what amounts to an 80-page objection.

If he gets suspended, he said, "I need a break."

He may not get one either way. The Bar is also looking into his actions surrounding a client's sinkhole claim.

In April, Circuit Judge Martha Cook ruled that Laurato and a couple he represented had committed "fraud upon the court" by submitting a false affidavit.

He went head-to-head with the judge in a court filing, accusing her of wrongly disparaging him.

Those recent cases prompted this story. Laurato wasn't keen about it being written.

"You must be completely bored," he told a reporter. "I guess I can't stop you."

If he doesn't like it, will he sue?

He smiled.

"You better get it right."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Brash Tampa lawyer attracts attention, both good and bad 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 6:23pm]
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