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Former Tampa judge suspended from law practice over romantic relationship with client

J. Kevin Carey admitted he had a romantic relationship with a woman while handling her divorce.
J. Kevin Carey's suspension will take effect in mid-January.
J. Kevin Carey's suspension will take effect in mid-January. [ TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 30, 2021|Updated Dec. 30, 2021

TAMPA — The Florida Supreme Court this month approved a 90-day suspension from the practice of law for a former Tampa judge who admitted he had a romantic relationship with a woman while representing her in a divorce.

J. Kevin Carey, who was a Hillsborough circuit court judge from 2003 to 2009, pleaded guilty to violating Florida Bar rules and agreed to the suspension.

“It was a mutually consensual relationship I had with a client,” Carey told the Tampa Bay Times. “This has been going on for about four years and I just want to get it resolved.”

The suspension will take effect in mid-January. Carey will also be required to complete an ethics school, a professionalism workshop and undergo an evaluation by a lawyer-assistance organization.

The trouble arose from a Naples case in which Carey represented the woman who sought a divorce from her husband, with whom she had children. The case is described in Florida Bar records as “highly contested” and “vigorously litigated.”

The opposing lawyers filed a Bar complaint when they learned of his relationship with his client.

A document that accompanied Carey’s guilty plea summarizes the resulting fallout. It states that the relationship became a contentious issue during the divorce, “which negatively affected the proceedings.”

Carey’s client met with the Florida Bar and said she felt he had represented her well.

“She was not exploited,” the document reads. “She was satisfied with her representation and felt (Carey) worked hard for her, made decisions based on the law and facts, and ultimately did an excellent job on her behalf.”

Carey told the Bar he did not intend to violate the rules or adversely affect his client, but acknowledged that his relationship with her did both. The Bar also found he lacked professionalism in dealing with his opposing counsel and the woman’s ex-husband.

The guilty plea document notes that Carey has no prior Bar discipline and cooperated with the investigation. It states that during their relationship, Carey advised his client to seek independent legal advice about his continued representation of her. She did, and said she felt comfortable having him continue to represent her.

Carey told the Times he still represents the woman, but they ended their romantic relationship shortly after the divorce became final in 2017. He said judges who presided over the case were aware of the relationship, but none reported ethical concerns. Florida Bar rules obligate judges and lawyers to report suspected professional misconduct.

One of the charges Carey admitted to concerned the Bar’s rules regarding “misconduct,” which prohibit lawyers from engaging in sexual conduct with a client that exploits or adversely affects the client’s interests or the lawyer-client relationship.

“I don’t believe in any way she was exploited and she doesn’t believe that,” Carey said. “In hindsight, my better judgment would have been to hold off until after the case was over.”

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“I’ve learned from it,” he said. “I’m happy to get it resolved.”

Carey, 63, was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1983 and eventually became partner at the firm of Carlton Fields before being elected to the bench. As a judge, he presided in felony drug court, juvenile dependency, family law and civil trial divisions. In 2008, he narrowly lost his bid for reelection — a rarity for a sitting judge — to Catherine Catlin, who remains on the circuit bench today.

The plea paper notes Carey is well-respected in the Tampa legal community. He served on the board of directors for the Hillsborough County Bar Association and Bay Area Legal Services, among other activities. The document also mentions that he served as vice chair of the Florida Bar Civil Rules Committee.

Carey was one of seven Tampa Bay-area attorneys to receive discipline in November and December.

The others included Kelly Anne McCabe, of St. Petersburg, who was disbarred for failing to inform her clients, opposing counsel and courts of a suspension she received in June. McCabe was best known for her brief involvement in representing the family of Markeis McGlockton, who was shot to death by Michael Drejka in a dispute over a parking space.

Other local lawyers who received discipline were:

  • Douglas James Barnard of St. Petersburg, was disbarred for continuing to accept legal fees and represent clients despite a suspension, according to the Florida Bar. In one case, he failed to perform the legal services he was hired for, causing harm to the client, failed to reasonably communicate with the client, and did not respond to Bar inquiries.
  • Constance Daniels, of Brandon, received a written admonishment for failing to act with due diligence and to communicate with her client in a divorce case, according to the Bar.
  • Gregory John Hoag, of Tampa, received a public reprimand related to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge involving his former wife.
  • Richard Mark Nummi, of St. Petersburg, was suspended for 30 days after the Bar found he held excessive fees belonging to him in a trust account and comingled earned fees in the account.
  • Kelsay Dayon Patterson, of Tampa, received a two-year suspension for his conduct in a federal civil rights case in which the Bar found Patterson acted vexatiously, multiplying and delaying the proceedings, and made unfounded accusations of racial and other biases against the opposing lawyers and the judge.
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