Judicial candidate Brian Battaglia has been ordered to pay a portion of $35,571 in attorney's fees stemming from a case that a judge found "frivolous."
The order comes less than two months before the Aug. 26 election. He is running against attorney Kimberly Sharpe for an open judicial seat in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit.
But Battaglia said in an interview Tuesday he did not think the recent order reflects poorly on his abilities as a lawyer, and he did not expect it to become a major campaign issue.
"I don't see why it would be . . . with regard to litigation, these things can occur," he said. He stressed that an appeal has been filed.
The fees stem from a family dispute in probate court over a will. Battaglia and another attorney represented a widow, who had presented to the court a purported version of her late husband's will.
The other family members won the case, but they didn't stop there. They asked the court to make the widow's side pay attorney's fees because she "knew when she filed the petition that no evidence existed her husband had ever signed the proffered will," according to court documents.
Judge Lauren Laughlin agreed that there was not enough evidence to support the claim, and she ordered sanctions on both the widow and her attorneys.
Laughlin said it's quite possible Battaglia and the other attorney may have "reasonably believed" in their client's case at the outset. But, she said, they should have realized the story was falling apart after a family attorney was called to testify during a formal interview called a deposition.
Although the family attorney had initially backed the widow's position, saying the late husband had signed the will, the lawyer grew far more tentative in the deposition. During cross-examination, he said, "I have no independent recollection of him signing that will."
That's when the widow's attorneys should have backed off, Laughlin wrote.
"They all bear the costs of advancing a frivolous claim," Laughlin wrote in her order.
On Tuesday, Battaglia said that on two separate occasions the judge denied motions to dismiss the case and allowed it to move forward.
The widow's other attorney, Alan M. Gross, said he thinks the family attorney's testimony was appropriate to use as evidence, and actually not all that different from what he said earlier. "I honestly believe the appeal court will reverse in our favor."
Gross didn't think the case should be a black mark on Battaglia's candidacy. He pointed out that Battaglia included a note about this dispute on the financial disclosure statement he filed with the state Division of Elections. That was before Laughlin had issued her order.
During the campaign, Battaglia, 53, has stressed the breadth of his 28-year legal career handling civil litigation, contracts, business law, land use and health law. He also has been president of the Community Law Program and a UPARC Foundation board member.
Sharpe, 33, is a partner in a prominent Clearwater law firm and has been an attorney for eight years. Her undergraduate major was in computer and information science.
Contact Curtis Krueger at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes