The law firm of suspended St. Petersburg attorney Mark Stopa is in such chaos that much of its staff has quit — some after suffering stress-related breakdowns — and a liquidation bankruptcy filing is imminent.
In an emergency motion filed this week in a North Florida court, the Tampa lawyer who took over Stopa’s 4,200 pending cases said the firm is not able to make payroll or hire and train new employees.
"The firm’s remaining attorneys cannot possibly respond to the clients’ needs or provide the representation that the firm’s clients deserve," lawyer Richard Mockler wrote in the motion.
It is unclear who will now represent the thousands of homeowners throughout Florida who had sought the help of Stopa’s law firm in saving their homes.
Stopa, who ran one of the state’s biggest foreclosure defense firms, was suspended on an emergency basis in July for violating numerous rules of professional conduct. On Aug. 21, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement raided his office and seized computers and case files.
In his motion, Mockler said he took over Stopa’s practice before the emergency suspension. At that point, Mockler wrote, he had "no substantive knowledge of the alleged criminal wrongdoing by Mr. Stopa." (The FDLE won’t say what it is investigating, and Stopa has not been charged.)
"Due in large part to the stress, uncertainty and anxiety created by the suspension and the FDLE raid, the firm lost many of its key employees including literally every attorney and staff member previously working in the firm’s appellate department," Mockler’s motion said.
Some employees developed such serious health issues they couldn’t come to work while Mockler, who had a heart transplant two years ago, said he himself "is being greatly affected by the ever continuing stress of this situation."
After the suspension, the funds in Stopa’s accounts needed to operate the firm were frozen and Mockler couldn’t hire new employees to handle the huge caseload.
At the same time, lenders and their attorneys "aggressively sought to schedule depositions, set hearings and set matters for trial while conveying hundreds of settlement offers," Mockler’s motion said. "Trial judges also pushed many matters forward with several denying requests for continuance following the FDLE raid."
Compounding the law firm’s problems was that many clients were unwilling to pay their fees because of the negative publicity.
As a result, "the firm is unable to meet its payroll obligations and has retained counsel to petition for a liquidation of the firm in bankruptcy," the motion said. "A bankruptcy filing… is imminent."
The Florida Bar said Tuesday that Mockler’s motion was "not relevant" to the Bar’s pending case against Stopa.
After hearing from judges, clients and other lawyers earlier this year, a referee in the case recommended Stopa be suspended for a year. She also said he should undergo mental health treatment for what she said was "clearly an emotional problem" evidenced by such angry outbursts that some judges threw him out of their courtrooms.
Stopa was still practicing when the Bar asked for the emergency suspension, saying he appeared to be causing "great harm" to the public by continuing to violate Bar rules.
Lawyers under emergency suspension are only required to give the Bar a sworn affidavit saying they have notified their clients.
"It’s not part of the Bar’s disciplinary case against Stopa, nor is the Bar’s responsibility to identify who will take over all of the cases," a spokesperson said. "The Bar’s role is to be the prosecutor. The clients will need to get new attorneys."
Anthony Rondolino, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit, said in a statement Tuesday that said it is "unfortunate that so many" of Stopa’s clients might be without legal counsel.
"They all need to be aware that if they still wish to fight the foreclosure they should provide a current mailing address to the clerk of court so they can receive notice of future hearings," the judge’s statement said.
Contact Susan Tayor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate