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Former legal colleagues face off in court

NEW PORT RICHEY — Imagine a law firm where the paralegal hired the attorney and set her salary.

Imagine a firm where client monies were treated like an ATM and the lawyer there didn't know it was her job to keep track of those funds in the first place.

Imagine an attorney ordered by a judge to show up in court — under threat of arrest — who instead went on vacation because her paralegal told her she could.

It sounds like some kind of alternate legal dimension — or, according to Jessica Miller, her old law firm.

Unfortunately for Miller, she practiced law in this dimension until the Florida Bar shut her firm down and suspended her law license earlier this year.

She went on trial Monday for indirect criminal contempt of court, accused of disobeying a judge's order in December to show up in court and explain herself.

The above reasons were all cited in her defense, which basically came down to this:

Jessica Miller just wasn't that good of a lawyer.

Which might explain why she was led out in handcuffs. Again.

• • •

Miller's real problem is the ongoing criminal investigation into thousands of missing client dollars from her defunct firm.

No one has been arrested in that case. But it's one of the many reasons why she was disbarred, and it's why she was in trouble Monday.

Miller was supposed to be holding $28,155.99 for client William Morales for his divorce. It was proceeds from a home sale.

In November, she promised Circuit Judge Shawn Crane she would transfer the money. She never did.

Then, in December, she ignored his commands to appear before him to explain why she didn't.

• • •

Miller blamed it all on her paralegal, Kristen Collins.

Miller said Collins befriended her, hired her, took the lawyer under her paralegal wing, gave her legal advice, even set her salary: just under $30,000.

And Miller said it was Collins who was in charge of all the books, who paid the bills, who signed the checks — even from the trust accounts, where client funds are stored.

Defense attorney Steve Bartlett accused Collins of looting the firm's accounts.

That's why Miller couldn't hand over the $28,000.

"Kristen was basically using the account as her own personal ATM," Miller said. "I'm basically in shock. I still am."

Miller said she couldn't access, nor did she track, any of the firm's bank accounts. But under Bar rules, only attorneys can sign on trust accounts. Collins should never have had access.

• • •

Collins herself has gotten in trouble with the Bar for the unlicensed practice of law. She received probation in 2005 for forging the signatures of a judge and an attorney.

But when Miller was in trouble, this was the legal assistant she trusted to get her out of it.

Miller said Collins told her the $28,000 was held up by a bank error, and that the paralegal hired her a lawyer to show up in court when the judge summoned her in December, so Miller wouldn't have to go.

"The first thing I did was I called Kristen," Miller said, "and she said don't worry."

But no lawyer showed up for Miller that day.

• • •

Collins denied taking any money. She said Miller controlled the accounts.

Collins said she didn't own the firm but tried to help Miller buy it from another lawyer.

As for that December hearing, Collins said she tried to get Miller a lawyer — but couldn't get anyone to take the case.

The judge found two things: First, that Miller left early for vacation on Dec. 19, a day before the contempt hearing. And second, that she had already been jailed for contempt in August. How could she not know to show up for a similar hearing in December?

"You never took a single step to rectify the situation, which is perhaps indicative of why you never came to court," Crane said.

The judge found Miller guilty and had her taken into custody. She faces up to six months in jail. She will be sentenced July 8.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Former legal colleagues face off in court 06/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 5:21pm]
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