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Florida Bar investigates two attorneys accused of stealing clients

Personal injury attorney Richard Mulholland has been fighting a decade to punish a pair of younger lawyers who he said stole his most lucrative clients when they left his firm to start their own practice.

This past week, Mulholland, 76, whose personal injury firm once occupied the entire 39th floor of the Bank of America building in Tampa, got some satisfaction.

The Florida Bar filed a complaint with the state Supreme Court against William Henry Winters and Marc Edward Yonker, saying they should be disciplined for violating more than a dozen rules regulating the ethics of lawyers.

Among the accusations: Winters and Yonker committed theft when they copied and took client files from Mulholland’s firm in 2001. The two lawyers are recognizable from their blitz of billboards and TV advertisements.

Mulholland said the pair decimated his practice and he never recovered. His downsized firm of five now occupies a small suite in Hyde Park.

I trusted them more than any other person in the office and I never dreamed they would do this,” he said. “But you have to go on down the road.”

• • •

Winters said in a phone interview Tuesday that he welcomed the Florida Bar complaint, which — unless it is settled — will be assigned to a Pinellas County judge for trial.

"I haven't seen it yet," Winters said, "but if the Bar investigates this it may be a good thing. I think there may be good results. I wasn't happy the way the trial turned out."

The Florida Bar complaint against Winters, 50, and Yonker, 43, stemmed from a lawsuit Mulholland filed that went to trial in 2008.

Mulholland showed during the trial that when Winters and Yonker resigned from the firm in 2001, they took the firm's highest-value clients.

Mulholland found out what the lawyers had done after his investigator spoke with Elizabeth Chapa, a paralegal who had been fired from the Mulholland firm for having an affair with Winters.

Chapa revealed that Winters and Yonker used a spare room in her home as office space for their new firm while they had her copy records and talk to Mulholland's clients. Chapa even accessed Mulholland's computers and changed client records so Mulholland couldn't contact them, according to the complaint.

Winters and Chapa then met with the clients and told them Mulholland was retiring and no one would be available to handle their cases. At least 12 of the clients went with the new firm of Winters and Yonker.

The jury found Winters and Yonker liable for civil theft. Combined, they said the two men owed Mulholland about $2 million.

Yonker paid Mulholland his share of $676,386 plus interest. But Winters appealed his $1.4 million judgment. Earlier this year, the District Court of Appeal ruled that Winters did remove several of Mulholland's files and engaged in "misappropriation, fraud and deception." They remarked: "The facts in this case are enough to make any legal ethics professor cringe."

But the appeals court judges said Mulholland hadn't proved that Winters' actions caused him damage and tossed out the verdict.

• • •

Winters, who still has a personal injury firm with Yonker, said Tuesday that the clients came with him because he was their lawyer.

"I'd been the primary one working on their files so they went with me," he said. "It happens all the time."

Mulholland acknowledged that sometimes clients do follow their lawyers to a new firm. But typically, the firm and the departing lawyer negotiate for the fees to be divided in some fashion.

Mulholland said he thinks what Winters and Yonker did was unethical and criminal.

"I think they should have been disbarred a long time ago," he said. "But the Supreme Court and the Florida Bar are slow. But once they decide to do something they are very tough."

Florida Bar investigates two attorneys accused of stealing clients 07/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 8:15pm]
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