Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Overhaul Needed of The Florida Bar's Role in Regulating Lawyer Misconduct

JACKSONVILLE, FLA---Sometimes, hopefully rarely, people are victimized by those they turned to when they were vulnerable and needed help. Deceived by someone they had every reason to think they could trust -- someone they should have been able to trust.

Discovery of such betrayal shakes our faith. Even more so when it occurs within the sanctity of an attorney-client relationship. And still more so if the duplicity becomes so commonplace at a law firm that it's simply dismissed as a routine business practice.

I'm an attorney and was employed by FARAH, FARAH & ABBOTT, P.A. a/k/a The Law Offices of Eddie Farah in 2004 when I discovered it was regularly overcharging its personal injury clients. According to the firm's web site, it is now known as the Law Offices of Farah & Farah, P.A. The principals in the firm are Eddie Farah and his brother, Charlie E. Farah.

The firm was frequently 'padding' costs charged to clients by $300 or more per case and had been doing so for several years. Clients were required clients to sign settlement statements certifying they agreed with the falsified figures before any portion of their settlement proceeds would be paid to them. The firm's contingency fee contracts, accounting records and settlement statements clearly document its overcharging practices. Examples of the firm's overcharging practices are available here".

I resigned from the law firm in Oct. 2004 because its overcharging practices presented me with irreconcilable conflicts of interest as an attorney representing its clients. My resignation letter speaks for itself. In my professional judgment, the firm's clients must be informed of its practice of misappropriating funds from similarly situated clients. Without that information, clients cannot make informed decisions concerning the law firm they choose to entrust with their legal representation. On the other hand, disclosure of such information would expose my employer and its principals to risk of financial, professional and criminal sanctions.

The conflicts of interest were sufficiently urgent to forego giving advance notice of my resignation to The Law Offices of Eddie Farah. I couldn’t very well say, ‘Here’s two weeks notice of my resignation because you have been defrauding your clients and I’ve reported you to the State Bar.’ I didn’t think that would be a workable situation. What would I do for the two weeks, inform clients that the firm was defrauding other clients, or keep my mouth shut and violate my obligations to the clients?

City of Jacksonville and State of Florida officials declined to investigate reports of the law firm's overcharging practices, ostensibly because The Florida Bar has exclusive jurisdiction. On Jan. 10, 2005, I wrote to the Office of Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist and reported the firm's repeated acts of consumer theft/fraud. The Florida Attorney General’s Office responded by letter dated Jan. 24, 2005 identifying The Florida Bar as the agency responsible for reviewing grievances against Florida lawyers.

My concerns over the firm's overcharging practices had already been reported in Sept. 2004 by letter to Donald M. Spangler, Esq., Chief Branch Discipline Counsel for The Florida Bar. The letter included supporting documentation from ten cases in which the firm grossly overcharged clients and pointed out, “The documentation is being provided in only ten (10) cases, but the practice of overcharging clients for costs in this manner is widespread at the firm. There are likely hundreds and perhaps thousands of files in which the firm has overcharged clients for costs in this manner without their knowledge." I telephoned Spangler a few days later and confirmed the letter and documentation were received.

Surprisingly, a full year went by with no contact from any representatives of The Florida Bar to investigate the report of widescale fraud and misappropriation of clients' funds by The Law Offices of Eddie Farah. Despite the egregiousness of the reported misconduct, I received no inquiries whatsoever from The Florida Bar by letter, telephone or email.

I followed up with The Florida Bar in Sept. and Oct. 2005. By email dated Oct. 27, 2005, Spangler succinctly responded, "The file to which you refer was closed. The grievance committee considered the matter after investigation and an audit by the Bar Staff Auditor, and found there was no probable cause to pursue disciplinary proceedings. They did elect to send a letter of advice to the firm."

According to The Florida Bar's web site, "The Florida Bar has an important role in the regulation of lawyer misconduct. A complaint of unprofessional conduct against a Florida Bar member is a serious matter. The processing and investigation of inquiries and complaints are a basic responsibility of the Bar as mandated by the Florida Supreme Court. The Bar seeks to protect the public from unethical lawyers."

It's difficult to fathom how The Florida Bar's grievance committee could reach an informed decision concerning probable cause to pursue disciplinary proceedings without ever even contacting the person reporting the misconduct. I'm following up with The Florida Bar requesting a copy of its file and inquiring into the scope of its 'investigation'.

Why am I speaking out publicly about The Law Offices of Eddie Farah's overcharging practices? It’s been over a year since I first reported the firm’s fraudulent overcharging practices. It overcharged hundreds of unsuspecting clients over a period spanning several years and the combined misappropriated funds are estimated at several hundred thousand dollars. Defrauded clients remain unaware they are owed return of their money. The Florida Attorney General's Office deferred to The Florida Bar to investigate the reported fraud. The Florida Bar in turn closed its file without even contacting the person reporting the overcharging practices. It's hard to have faith in a system that allows such attorney misconduct to go unacknowledged and uncorrected even after it's been identified, documented and reported. Plainly stated, justice hasn’t been served and nobody seems too concerned about it.

Who protects the clients who were overcharged by The Law Offices of Eddie Farah. Of particular concern is my question to Spangler, "...[A]re you satisfied as Chief Branch Discipline Counsel for The Florida Bar that my allegations of misconduct by FARAH, FARAH & ABBOTT, P.A. have been adequately investigated and that no further action is necessary?"
I'm is certainly not satisfied. I’ve been a lawyer for over eighteen years and this experience almost makes me wonder if I’m naive in believing the misuse of client funds to be among the worst offenses a lawyer can commit. I'm often asked whether cronyism is at the heart of The Florida Bar's seemingly inadequate investigation. While I hope cronyism did not come into play, The Florida Bar's role in investigating and regulating lawyer misconduct seems badly in need of a major overhaul.

Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.

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