ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa lawyers William Winters and Marc Yonker prevailed again in court Wednesday, when a judge recommended only a written admonishment for how they set up their law firm a decade ago.
Winters and Yonker, personal injury lawyers now known for their heavy advertising, had a messy start in 2001, when they broke away from their previous employer, Richard Mulholland.
The Florida Bar alleged that they stole Mulholland's files, lied to clients and, in the case of Yonker, had an assistant hack into Mulholland's computers and wipe out client information.
But after a four-day hearing in March, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walt Logan found that the two lawyers committed only two technical violations of Bar rules. Logan reiterated that finding Wednesday, recommending the lowest form of punishment instead of the 60 to 90-day suspensions requested by the Bar.
"Clearly there was a better way'' to leave the old law firm, Logan said, "But there is nothing to suggest that clients were disserved.''
Winters and Yonker agreed to pay $24,750 in court costs. The Florida Supreme Court has final say on Bar punishment, but typically gives strong weight to the judge's recommendation.
In 2008, Mulholland won a $2-million civil jury verdict against Winters and Yonker, saying they cost him millions of dollars in fees when they took dozens of clients to their new firm.
But that verdict was overturned on appeal because clients are free to hire anyone they want, and Mulholland had failed to present evidence to support the alleged damages. Though he threw out the verdict, the appellate judge went out of his way to blast Winters and Yonker for "loathsome'' behavior.
Logan saw things differently, though he did find that the lawyers committed two technical rule violations.
For a few months after they started the new firm, they included a third attorney's name on their letterhead, even though he never joined firm. Yonkers testified that it helped make the firm look bigger. Logan agreed that the letterhead violated bar rules, but not by much.
When Bar counsel Henry Paul called it a deliberate misrepresentation to the public, Logan noted that young lawyers out of law school might call themselves "The Paul Law Group,'' even if they have a solo practice.
Yonker also committed the lowest level of misdemeanor theft when he took Mulholland files out of the office during his lunch hour and copied them in anticipation of starting the new firm. Winters also kept files after leaving Mulholland. Information in files usually belongs to clients, not the firm, Logan said, but the paperwork had slight financial value simply as paper, and the paper belonged to Mulholland.
Paul said the two lawyers were "self-dealing,'' disloyal and concealing their movements while working for another lawyer, which the Supreme Court considers a serious violation.
But Logan noted that in 2001, there were no specific rules about how law firms should break up. The courts have since required lawyers to write joint letters to clients to avoid any shenanigans.
Hillsborough Circuit Judges Gregory Holder and James Arnold testified by telephone that Winters and Yonker are honest, ethical lawyers.
That being the case, Logan said, suspending them for possessing files 10 years ago would serve no great purpose.