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A case of money, deceit, sex and lawyers

TAMPA — In front of the jury, the case played like a cross between Peyton Place and Bleak House. There were whispers of extramarital affairs, accusations of straight-faced betrayal, stories of files secretly copied and computer records surreptitiously altered, and reams of testimony confirming the worst stereotypes about ambulance-chasing attorneys.

It began with one lawyer — the old man of the firm, his hair gone white, but his name still well-known after years of TV commercials — accusing two proteges of stealing the heart of his practice. A personal injury lawyer, personally injured. It ended with the younger lawyers in a crowded courtroom, giving their side of the knotted story. By then they had formed a new firm, with ads of their own, touting themselves as "Aggressive Attorneys."

A little too aggressive, apparently. The jury recently found the two proteges had committed civil theft and hit them with a verdict that could cost them nearly $2-million.

"This case has been a nightmare. Seven years. It's been going on for seven years," one defense attorney said last week, shuffling wearily out of another hearing. "It's an apocalyptic nightmare."

• • •

In business, as in love, breakups can be messy. Colleagues part ways, accuse each other of unfair tactics, go to court. But the breakup between Richard Mulholland and his former associates, Bill Winters and Marc Yonker, rivals the nastiest of divorces.

The case offers a detailed tour of the highly competitive world of personal injury law. It is a world of pinstripe suits and gritty ambition, where lawyers exude politesse in court but can curse like sailors in private, where female employees are still routinely referred to as "girls," and where millions can be made by those who know when to settle and when to take a case to court, otherwise known as "the pit."

Personal injury attorneys come in two varieties — "finders" and "grinders." Finders put their faces on billboards and phone book ads, attracting clients, cases, fees. Then they hire grinders to work the phones, meet with insurance adjusters, juggle hundreds of cases for the chance of catching a big one.

Richard Riggsbee Mulholland, 74, is a classic finder. The Morgan & Morgan of his time, he pioneered the use of legal advertising two decades ago when other attorneys criticized the practice as unseemly. The lifelong Tampa resident had always been a loner who did things his way. At age 9 he shined shoes for a dime a pair, learning about marketing and competition; later he funded his law school education by playing the trumpet in his own orchestra, the Gentlemen of Swing.

He opened a solo personal injury firm in 1960 and, with the help of just one secretary, spent a decade handling every aspect of the car accident, slip and fall, burn and bite cases that came his way. For 15 years, he says, he slept on a bed in his office, while his three children lived with his ex-wife. One week, Mulholland tried three jury cases.

"If I keep this up, I'll never see 40," he realized.

Soon he was building a larger practice. At its height, his firm spent $1-million a year on advertising and occupied the entire 39th floor of what is now the Bank of America building. The dividends left Mulholland flush enough to buy a twin-engine plane and purchase 500 acres of what would become prime real estate in Brandon.

Bill Winters, 48, wasn't long out of law school when he started at Mulholland's firm in 1985. A decade and a half later, he was handling the firm's major litigation and lunching with his boss at the Tampa Club on the top floor of their office skyscraper.

"I trusted him," Mulholland says.

The elder attorney rarely interacted with another young grinder who joined the firm in 1995. Marc Yonker's job was to settle cases over the phone instead of going to court.

Neither Winters nor Yonker, 41, granted interviews for this story. But hundreds of pages of depositions and trial transcripts make it clear that by 2001 both attorneys were growing restless. The situation grew more volatile when rumors spread that Winters was having an affair with Betsy Chapa, then a 29-year-old paralegal at the firm. Both were married. A secretary had seen them kissing in the office.

Mulholland considered himself to be understanding about "matters of the heart," but firm policy forbade office romances. He told Winters to fire his paramour. Winters carried out the task on April 27, 2001.

Why fire the woman and not the man?

"It was a matter of expediency for me," Mulholland says. "It was easier for me to let a secretary go than a lawyer that I was working with on so many big cases."

Within two months, both Winters and Yonker quit. Mulholland says neither gave him any notice. Winters, he says, simply called to say he had left his resignation letter in the top right-hand drawer of his desk.

"No phone call, no goodbyes, no handshakes, no nothing," says Mulholland.

A quick inventory told Mulholland that the pair had stripped him of his most promising files, his "high-dollar" cases.

"They basically took 40 years of my work" — Mulholland snaps his fingers — "just like that."

•••

Mulholland's office was reduced to a skeleton.

Even before Winters and Yonker left, Mulholland had been downsizing. His ads, once dominant in Tampa Bay, were now dwarfed by Morgan & Morgan's marketing blitz. Mulholland didn't have the resources, or the desire, to keep pace.

With the loss of his last two grinders and his best cases, Mulholland struggled to stay afloat. He fired staff, closed departments and suffered the embarrassment of moving out of the skyscraper and renting space from other lawyers.

It took him three years, he says, to realize the depth of the sabotage. The first clue came when his office manager went looking for a former client who had complained about Yonker. But they couldn't find the man. The firm's electronic records didn't match up with the client's original paperwork. Someone had gone into the computer and changed numbers and addresses for this client and others.

Mulholland hired an investigator who had spent years uncovering financial fraud for the IRS. Following the trail of the hacked computer records, the investigator sought out Betsy Chapa. She told Mulholland exactly how his clients had been lured away.

Winters and Yonker, Chapa said, had visited her Brandon home the night of her firing. In her living room, they told her they planned to leave, too, and wanted her to work for them.

Chapa said she began meeting Yonker at the University of Tampa campus. Yonker would give her one or two of the firm's client files each time. She would copy them and store the copies in her spare bedroom, returning the originals to Yonker.

She also explained what happened to Mulholland's client records. In May 2001, just after her firing, she remotely accessed the law firm's computer network and altered information for about 20 to 30 clients. The changes were meant to keep the firm from contacting those clients after Winters and Yonker left.

The weekend before Mulholland knew Yonker had resigned, she said, the younger attorney and Chapa met with clients to get them to sign new contracts.

These revelations turned Mulholland's despair to anger. He hunkered down for a fight.

• • •

Winters and Yonker learned from their mentor.

Since opening their own practice, they have starred in TV commercials, appeared in color ads on the front of the phone book, launched a Web site that gives their toll-free number just above a photo of a speeding ambulance. Today, their faces loom from billboards around Tampa Bay, their heads depicted on a scale too big for the billboards' frames, with Yonker's tousled, highlighted hair and the dome of Winters' bald pate jutting into the open sky.

Their sworn statements in the Mulholland case suggest they may well have felt exploited during their time in the older attorney's firm. Mulholland personally handled perhaps half a dozen cases at a time; Yonker alone was assigned to as many as 350. By most accounts, Mulholland rarely appeared in court, conducted a deposition, or fielded clients' calls. But when the fees rolled in, roughly two-thirds of that revenue went to him and the firm.

Burt Alvarez, another personal injury attorney, says it was well-known that Winters ran the firm.

"A sharp lawyer," Alvarez calls Winters. "He made Mulholland many, many millions of dollars."

Winters and Yonker countered any suggestion that they'd stolen anything from Mulholland. Throughout the case, there was a great deal of discussion about whether it was even possible to steal a client. Clients, it was pointed out, are not property.

"These are not cars," Tim Prugh, Yonker's lawyer, said in an interview, bristling at an analogy Mulholland made several times. "These are human beings, with human problems, and you don't even know them by name. You don't know about their kids. You don't know about their accidents. You don't know anything about them. And you want all of the money. That ain't right."

• • •

None of this acrimony appears to have harmed the clients, either those who stayed with Mulholland or those who went with Winters and Yonker. Two of Yonker's clients told the St. Petersburg Times they had felt no pressure to follow him to his new firm. They were pleased with the settlements he had won for them in claims following car accidents. The battle between their lawyers and Mulholland was of no consequence to them.

"That wasn't my problem," says Trudy Taylor, a 38-year-old St. Petersburg woman. "I just wanted my case solved."

Jaime Wolf, 29, of Ruskin, said Yonker "was the only person I saw, so he was the only person I trusted."

Did she ever talk to Mulholland?

"Not once."

• • •

At last month's trial, Mulholland and his former proteges didn't exchange so much as a polite greeting.

"It was like they were two absolute strangers," Mulholland says.

The legal soap opera drew a crowd. Other attorneys flocked to the courtroom to witness their brethren locked in combat.

Laying out his grievances, Mulholland looked into the eyes of the jurors, as he'd counseled so many of his clients to do over the decades. Betsy Chapa confirmed the computer hacking and the secret meetings, as well as her affair with Winters.

By the time Chapa testified, her personal and professional relationships with Winters were long over. She quit Winters' and Yonker's firm in 2003 and did not speak to Winters again until he called her at work one day late last year. By then the Mulholland lawsuit was nearing trial, with Chapa listed as a key witness. That day on the phone, she said, Winters floated the idea of her coming back to work for him.

"He also indicated that his firm was certainly all about the money," Chapa recalled, "and the door was always open if I wanted to return."

Winters and Yonker testified that they had not asked Chapa to hack into Mulholland's computer and change any client information. Yonker acknowledged he could have better handled his departure from the firm. He pointed out that he had already tried to compensate Mulholland for his share of the fees from his old clients.

"I would love to pay him," Yonker said.

Winters acknowledged the affair with Chapa. But he said he didn't remember dangling a job offer in front of her or saying his firm was "all about the money" when he called her in late 2007.

Throughout the week, as one bomb after another exploded from the witness stand, Tim Prugh could feel the withering judgment from the jurors. Yonker's attorney believed in his client. He agreed that Yonker had made some mistakes, but he certainly didn't think he was a thief. Still, he understood that the jurors were watching everyone at the defense table, studying their faces for signs of guilt or shame.

Prugh just kept scribbling on his legal pad. Over and over, he wrote:

God, please help me.

• • •

On the sixth evening of the trial, the jury found both Winters and Yonker liable for civil theft.

Winters bore the brunt of the blame for being "the brains behind the operation," said juror Susan Pace. Though some jurors partially pardoned the men's actions as typical of competition, Pace, a Tampa resident and homemaker, didn't buy the spin.

"Wrong is still wrong," she said.

On Friday, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen ruled that the verdict was excessive but that both Winters and Yonker had done wrong. He denied the defense's motion for a new trial and, as required by statute, tripled the damages after cutting the initial amount pinned on Winters. The defense has vowed to appeal, but if the judgment stands, Winters and Yonker will owe Mulholland $1.8-million.

It remains to be seen whether the damages will end up crippling their 7-year-old firm or whether the verdict will jeopardize their law licenses. The Florida Bar would not confirm whether it has a pending investigation against either attorney.

• • •

Last week, Mulholland pondered the case at his red-brick home on the shore of Lake Ellen in North Tampa. The centerpiece of the house — aside from its view of the lake — is an imposing living room with a two-story ceiling and a fireplace, accented with swords and jewel-toned fabrics and vaguely medieval statues of hunting dogs.

Mulholland talked about his victory over Winters and Yonker with tempered triumph, more matter of fact than gloating.

"I had to bring them to justice," he said. "They had to account for what they did."

A few feet away, the fireplace was crowned with his family crest, draped with a Scottish tartan and adorned with the Latin motto Semper Praecinctus. Asked what it means, Mulholland smiled.

"Always ready for battle."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337. Thomas French can be reached at french@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8486. Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

A case of money, deceit, sex and lawyers 07/12/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 10:55am]

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