Monday, December 05, 2005

Special Commission Conducting Long Overdue Review of The Florida Bar's Disciplinary Process

JACKSONVILLE, FLA---Sometimes, hopefully rarely, people are taken advantage of by someone they turned to when they were vulnerable and needed help. Deceived by someone they had every reason to believe they could trust. Violated by 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 when the duplicity becomes so commonplace at a law firm that it's simply dismissed as a routine business practice.

The public relies upon The Florida Bar to fulfill its responsibilities to process and investigate inquiries and complaints of lawyer misconduct as mandated by the Florida Supreme Court. Recent events demonstrate how The Florida Bar's role in regulating lawyer misconduct falls far short of meeting the public's needs.

It's been over a year since I resigned from my job as an attorney with FARAH, FARAH & ABBOTT, P.A. (a/k/a The Law Offices of Eddie Farah) in Jacksonville, Florida. 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 underlying circumstances bring John Grisham's novels to mind, only without the mystery. In a nutshell, I discovered in 2004 that the law firm was regularly overcharging personal injury clients by subtantial sums. 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 being required 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 settlement statements and accounting records clearly document its overcharging practices. Hundreds of clients were overcharged in this manner and the combined misappropriated funds are estimated at several hundred thousand dollars.

Discovery of the firm's widescale overcharging practices created professional conflicts of interest requiring my immediate resignation. My resignation letter speaks for itself.

City of Jacksonville and State of Florida officials declined to investigate reports of the firm's overcharging practices, ostensibly because The Florida Bar has exclusive jurisdiction.

My Jan. 10, 2005 letter to the Office of Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist 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.

An Aug. 5, 2005 Complaint to the City of Jacksonville Division of Consumer Affairs also reported the firm's overcharging practices. An Aug. 29, 2005 email from Cecelia Jefferson, Division Chief of the City of Jacksonville Consumer Affairs Division, stated the complaint exceeded the scope of her office's authority, but suggested contacting both The Florida Bar and the Office of the Florida Attorney General. Division Chief Jefferson's email stated,

"...[T]he Office of the Attorney General for the State of Florida is the enforcing authority for Florida Statutes 501, Part II. This is the unfair and deceptive trade practices act and violations of that act carries penalties of $10,000.00 per violation."

Agreeing with Jefferson's assessment, I sent a copy of this Aug. 29, 2005 email to Attorney General Charlie Crist again requesting that he initiate an investigation into the firm's overcharging practices if he considered it appropriate to do so. I've heard nothing further from Crist's office since that time.

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."

I made a written report of my concerns over the firm's overcharging practices to Donald M. Spangler, Esq., Chief Branch Discipline Counsel for The Florida Bar back in Sept. 2004. The letter included evidence from ten cases in which the firm 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 he received the letter and the enclosed supporting documentation. Surprisingly, a full year went by with no representatives of The Florida Bar contacting me to investigate the reported fraud and misappropriation of clients' funds. Not a single inquiry from The Florida Bar by letter, email or telephone.

I followed up with Spangler in Sept. and Oct. 2005 to provide The Florida Bar additional information uncovered since the initial Sept. 2004 complaint. By email dated Oct. 27, 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."

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 contacting me as part of its investigation. Despite the egregiousness of the reported misconduct, I received no inquiries whatsoever from The Florida Bar. It's hard to have faith in a system that allows lawyer misconduct to go unacknowledged and uncorrected even after it's been identified, documented and reported.

I followed up in writing requesting a copy of The Florida Bar's file under The Public Records Act and inquiring about the scope of its 'investigation'. Plainly stated, justice hasn't been served and nobody seems too concerned about it. I've asked Spangler of The Flroida Bar,

"...[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 certainly not satisfied and am often asked whether cronyism is at the heart of The Florida Bar's failure to pursue disciplinary proceedings. While I hope cronyism did not come into play, The Florida Bar's role in investigating and regulating lawyer misconduct certainly seems badly in need of a major overhaul.

According to a Dec. 1, 2005 article in The Florida Bar News a first look at an "extensive review of the Florida Bar’s disciplinary process" was on the agenda for the Bar's Board of Governors' recent December 16 at Amelia Island. Bar President-elect and Board of Governors member Henry Matson Coxe III chairs the Special Commission on Lawyer Regulation. Coincidentally, Coxe's law office within walking distance of The Law Offices of Eddie Farah in Jacksonville. By email to Mr. Coxe on Dec. 5, 2005, I requested that the manner in which my complaint of misconduct was handled be included in the Board of Governor's "extensive review" of the Bar’s disciplinary process at at its Dec. 16 meeting. I have not heard anything from Coxe.

If you believe you may be among those overcharged by FARAH, FARAH & ABBOTT, P.A. a/k/a The Law Offices of Eddie Farah, you are urged you to immediately contact The Florida Bar at 850-561-5600. Hopefully, you'll make more progress than I've been able to over the last year.

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

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