A legal lion, not a hyena: Even after his death, a Barry Cohen legal mystery

Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen was known to stir things up, and a fiery letter bearing his signature sent to judges after his death has people talking. Except those who knew him best say it wasn't Barry.
Amidst a swarm of cameras and reporters, attorney Barry Cohen pauses while leaving the Sam M. Gibbons federal courthouse in Tampa. [Times files 2009]
Amidst a swarm of cameras and reporters, attorney Barry Cohen pauses while leaving the Sam M. Gibbons federal courthouse in Tampa. [Times files 2009]
Published December 8 2018

Times Columnist

Bulldog attorney Barry Cohen always was the kind of lawyer who got people talking.

So maybe he wouldn't mind this posthumous mystery in the form of a letter that's made its way though the local legal community following his death at 79 from leukemia in September.

The letter in question bears his name — and some fiery Cohen-esque allegations.

And people who were close to the giant of a Tampa attorney do not believe he wrote it.

The three-page missive, sent to at least 20 Pinellas-Pasco judges and also some lawyers, begins dramatically enough:

If you are reading this letter, I have passed, and my judgement day before the high court has finally come.

It proceeds to attack opposing counsel and his expert witness in a recent case. It says the lawyer should be disbarred and the witness should lose his medical license. It is written on letterhead that says "THE BARRY A. COHEN LEGAL TEAM" and signed with his name and Florida Bar number.

Cohen's wife, psychologist Barbara Casasa Cohen, didn't even need to see it. She says she would have known if he was working on such a letter before he died, and that he would not send out something to be read once he was gone: "He considered things like that cowardly."

There is concurrence on this point: "Barry had a very distinct way of doing things and it was full-frontal," says Tampa city councilman Harry Cohen, who worked with him and was a friend.

"I spent literally thousands of hours to his right as he wrote things. That is not his writing," says private investigator Kevin Kalwary. And Cohen liked to be around for the fallout. "He liked the confrontation. He liked the fight."

Attorney Steve Yerrid, Cohen's dear friend, said this: "He wasn't a coward. He wasn’t a hyena. He didn’t hide and come and get what’s left. He took what he thought was right and he took it head-on, like a lion." Barry the Lionhearted. He would have liked that.

The case referenced in the letter was one of his last: He represented Dr. Scott Plantz at the end of a years-long medical malpractice action, attacking the credentials of a doctor who had been an expert witness against Plantz.

It is vintage Cohen that he took aim at opposing counsel Wil Florin. Florin had once represented a former Cohen employee accusing Cohen of breach of contract and someone else in the office of sexual harassment. Cohen was not a man to forget such things.

He got the malpractice case dismissed. "Karma is hell," he told the Times.

The letter in question lists bullet-point accusations against the expert witness and lawyer Florin. It alleges fraud. It says Cohen hoped to present this himself to the Florida Bar and Florida Medical Board, but now hopes the recipient(s) of the letter will see that "justice is served."

How did judges react? “The letter appeared to many of our judges to be something of a cruel joke, as it was postmarked well after Mr. Cohen’s death," said Stephen Thompson, spokesman for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, "so they discarded it since it didn’t seem to be related to any official business."

Even lawyer Florin, a subject of the letter, is convinced Cohen was not its author. It doesn't sound like him, and in fact, doesn't sound like a lawyer wrote it, he says. Florin has begun an investigation into who did.

"I've always liked Barry," he said. "I just didn't see him writing this."

Cohen's client in the malpractice case, Dr. Plantz, said he had never seen the letter until I sent it to him. No, he said when I asked, he did not write it.

And so, a mystery.

And really no surprise that even after he is gone, local legend and legal lion Barry Cohen still has people talking.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]