On a Tuesday afternoon in February, Clearwater attorney John P. Martin was supposed to meet with a longtime client.
Ralph Charette, who builds and refurbishes boats, wanted the six-figure sum his lawyer was supposed to be holding for him in a trust account for tax purposes. Charette was ready to buy a dream piece of property for his boat business, but his lawyer kept ducking him, according to a since-filed lawsuit.
Finally, Martin agreed to meet him at his Clearwater law office at 4 p.m., the suit says. But that day, before their appointment, Martin took his own life, according to a Pasco-Pinellas medical examiner’s report. He was 59.
The lawyer’s “consciousness of guilt may have been a motivating factor,” Charette’s lawsuit says.
With more than $2.3 million in client money that appears to have gone missing — the amount reported by an attorney appointed to inventory Martin’s practice — two other lawsuits also are filed. At least 13 people are missing money they entrusted to the lawyer in amounts ranging from $1,500 to more than a half million, according to the attorney.
A lawyer taking a client’s money — in this case, allegations ending in tragedy — is considered a cardinal sin among legal professionals.
Since 2006, more than 200 suspensions and outright disbarments have been imposed on Florida lawyers who took or borrowed from client funds — from a few thousand dollars to millions. Lawyers have used their clients’ money to pay off personal debts, keep a law firm afloat, finance a lifestyle and even feed a drug habit.
Martin apparently had been having financial difficulties since 2016, the inventory attorney reported.
Martin’s widow did not return phone messages and emails for comment.
“The vast majority of lawyers are honest and would not touch their clients’ money,” said Scott Tozian, a Tampa attorney who represents lawyers and judges in trouble. “Misappropriation of client money is the capital offense of the legal profession. The trust account is sacrosanct.”
A lawyer can hold a client’s funds — such as advances for fees and expenses, or settlements from lawsuits — in a separate trust bank account.
Tozian has seen cases of “lawyers robbing Peter to pay Paul, using that client’s money to pay the previous client who hasn’t been paid.”
“Sometimes it’s somebody short on money, and they consider it to be a temporary situation and they’ll put it back,” Tozian said. “But there’s never a justification for taking someone else’s money.”
Last month, Tampa attorney Jose Angel Toledo, former spouse of state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, was permanently disbarred after the Florida Bar found he ceased all communication with his clients, didn’t give them their settlement money and abandoned his law practice.
“Toledo emptied his client trust account(s), absconded with the funds, and his whereabouts are unknown,” the Bar reported.
Toledo advertised himself as Su Abogado Hispano, your Hispanic lawyer. He handled immigration, criminal defense, personal injury, workers compensation and bankruptcy cases and was the subject of 31 complaints to the Bar.
A judge’s order in the Toledos’ divorce noted they had “enjoyed a very high standard of living.” In court, Jackie Toledo expressed concerns about her ex-husband’s drug and alcohol use.
In Miami, a lawyer is accused of getting his clients a settlement in a sinkhole-related case, then getting a second, larger settlement without their knowledge and keeping $92,500 for his firm. Another South Florida lawyer is accused of taking clients’ inheritances, telling one who called to ask why the checks hadn’t come that they were lost in the mail.
Even though the vast majority of lawyers don’t do these kinds of things, what’s a client to do to avoid it?
People can check a lawyer’s 10-year disciplinary history by typing the name into the Find a Lawyer section on the Florida Bar’s website, floridabar.org. The website also provides online answers to questions about how to find a lawyer.
For people whose lawyers misappropriated their money, some financial compensation may be available through the Florida Bar Clients’ Security Fund. The amounts are capped at up to $5,000 for attorneys’ fees and up to $250,000 for misappropriated monies. Not all cases qualify.
“They have very specific rules on the Clients’ Security Fund,” Tozian said. “I’m sure clients don’t think it provided relief as much as they wish it would. I know people who were disappointed at not being eligible.”
Tozian suggests that clients stay in close touch with their lawyers and make sure any excuse makes sense. And they can always consult another lawyer, he said.
Charette’s lawsuit notes that he didn’t receive certain documents from his lawyer regarding their arrangement for the $540,203 Martin was holding for him from a previous real estate deal. But because Charette had sought counsel from him for years with no problem, he “assumed that the delay was clerical and not part of a broader scheme,” the suit says.
Charette’s lawyer, John Anthony, said Charette was a careful investor who trusted his attorney and recommended him to friends.
“Mr. Charette’s loss is all the more lamentable because of the professional oath that lawyers take when they become members of the Bar,” Anthony said, “and the way that oath was obviously betrayed in this instance.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour NationalSuicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by textingTALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. TheCrisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visitingcrisiscenter.com.