Winters & Yonker lawyers on the hook for $1-million

TAMPA — Richard Mulholland, once Tampa Bay's king of lawyer advertising, has won nearly $1-million in damages against two former associates he accused of hacking into his firm's computers and copying files to take business from him.

But attorneys Bill Winters and Marc Yonker could end up owing close to $3-million in damages. Late Monday, a jury determined that the law partners committed civil theft, a finding that triples the damages under a state law meant to discourage stealing.

The men, whose Winters & Yonker advertisements on phone book covers tout them as "aggressive attorneys," may also face trouble with the Florida Bar.

"The jury saw them for what they really were," Mulholland said Wednesday. "They were very unethical."

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen has not entered a final judgment.

In a brief telephone interview, Yonker said he has filed motions through his attorneys for a mistrial as well as a new trial, and if those fail, he plans to appeal. He declined to comment about the case until a judge rules on the motions next week.

Winters could not be reached Wednesday evening.

The trial attracted an audience of curious attorneys during its six days. Rife with allegations of theft, sex and deceit, it pitted one of Tampa's oldest personal injury law firms against a newer and heavily advertised firm.

Mulholland, an attorney turned developer, accused Winters and Yonker of doing more than mimicking their former boss' billboard strategy.

The older attorney said he once placed deep trust in the men. Winters, a senior trial lawyer, had been with Richard Mulholland & Associates since 1985. Yonker, with the firm since 1995, also handled many of the firm's cases.

When the pair decided to start their own firm in 2001, they began arranging commercials and Yellow Page advertisements without notifying Mulholland first of their plans to leave, he said.

They also conspired to take with them some of the firm's largest cases, Mulholland alleged in his lawsuit.

Trial testimony revealed that Elizabeth Chapa, a legal secretary at Mulholland's firm who had been fired in April 2001 after having an affair with Winters, was asked by the two lawyers to gain remote access to the firm's computer network. She modified the phone numbers and addresses of clients the men wanted to keep in an attempt to delay Mulholland's staff from contacting the clients first.

She also began meeting Yonker at the University of Tampa campus, where he would hand her a couple of files at a time from Mulholland's office to photocopy. She copied between 20 and 30 files at Kinko's, stored the copies in her home and gave the original files back to Yonker, according to the lawsuit and her deposition.

The weekend before Yonker officially left the Mulholland firm, he and Chapa visited clients, told them that there would be no one to handle their cases once the attorneys departed and got them to sign new contracts, Chapa testified.

Winters left the firm soon after and, in June 2001, the men set up their new firm in a spare bedroom in Chapa's Brandon home.

Mulholland quickly filed suit, seeking help from law enforcement to retrieve client files.

But it wasn't until three years later that his firm noticed something amiss in its computer network. Chapa came forward during the firm's investigation, and Mulholland agreed not to pursue legal action against her in exchange for her cooperation.

In finding that Yonker violated the state's civil theft statute, a jury awarded Mulholland about $189,000 in damages. The damages against Winters were about $748,500, plus $122,500 in attorneys' fees and $8,000 in litigation costs.

Mulholland expects the Florida Bar will investigate his former employees.

"It's taken a number of years to bring these lawyers to justice," he said, "but justice was finally done."

Times staff writer Thomas Kaplan and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Winters & Yonker lawyers on the hook for $1-million 07/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 10:52pm]

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