George Zimmerman will be back in court Friday, battling for a chance to be freed on bond, for the second time, in a high-profile murder case.
Defense attorney Mark O’Mara hopes the judge considers the former neighborhood watch volunteer’s continued cooperation with police and forgives the last bond-hearing debacle, when the defendant sat silently as his wife misled the court about his finances. Among O’Mara’s arguments: Zimmerman isn’t a flight risk or a danger to the community, nor does he have any history of failing to appear at court proceedings.
But Zimmerman was once fined $10,000 in a federal civil lawsuit because he was a no-show at his own deposition, The Miami Herald has learned. Records show lawyers, including one who flew in from Atlanta to take Zimmerman’s sworn statement, waited for him for an hour and a half while they tried unsuccessfully to reach him.
Zimmerman ultimately won the overtime-pay dispute in arbitration, but the arbitrator hit him with a fine he apparently never paid. Nothing in the court file explained why he missed the deposition.
O’Mara says Zimmerman’s failure to appear at a deposition in a civil case should not count against his client in his murder trial for the shooting of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin. O’Mara is asking the judge to set bond at “something similar” to $150,000 — what it was before Zimmerman was sent back to jail for keeping secret how much money he had raised from online donations.
“To the extents that courts concern themselves with a client’s appearance, missing a noticed or scheduled court proceeding is considered significant,” O’Mara said in an email to the Miami Herald. “Missing a deposition, while we don’t know why Mr. Zimmerman missed a deposition in a civil case, missing a deposition is not missing a scheduled court proceeding.”
In 2006, Zimmerman sued Aames Funding Corp., where he worked as a loan officer for three months in late 2005. The case was part of a class-action suit, which was separated from the others for reasons court records do not make clear.
Zimmerman said he worked up to 70 hours a week, without ever getting paid overtime for the extra hours.
He sued in federal court, claiming the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. A federal judge sent the case to arbitration.
Witnesses backed up Zimmerman’s claim, and said supervisors altered time sheets to make it appear that employees worked fewer hours, the court file shows.
On July 16, 2007, Zimmerman was scheduled to give a deposition, a mandatory sworn statement for the case. According to motions filed in court, Zimmerman did not show up, so his lawyers cited irreconcilable differences and temporarily quit the case in protest. They later mended fences.
“Because Zimmerman chose to pursue his claim, he cannot avoid the necessary process of discovery on a whim,” the opposing lawyer, Antonio Robinson, wrote in a motion. “The failure to appear was especially egregious, because the deposition was scheduled in his attorney’s office.”
The arbitrator overseeing the case agreed and fined Zimmerman $10,000. A year later the company lost the case, and was ordered to pay Zimmerman $18,000, plus another $25,000 to his attorney.
The court record shows Aames’ attorneys asked the judge to clarify whose award the sanction should be deducted from. Zimmerman’s attorney, Konstantine Pantas, argued that it should come from Zimmerman’s award, because he had been notified of the deposition in writing, and had confirmed that he would be there.
But Aames soon went into bankruptcy, and for three years nobody was paid. Zimmerman’s attorney got sick and retired.
The case was dead for over a year until two days before Zimmerman’s arrest this past April, when Pantas filed a status update to the court saying that he recently learned through the bankruptcy trustee that in July 2011, Zimmerman was paid the full $18,000.
“No fees were deducted, and Mr. Zimmerman retained the entire amount of the check,” Pantas wrote.
His court update was filed a day before two lawyers who had been defending Zimmerman on the murder charge publicly quit. The two dropped the case when, among other things, they learned Zimmerman had launched a website soliciting donations separate from the legal defense fund the attorneys were creating with Zimmerman’s dad.
The lawyer who handled the overtime case said he never got paid for the 100-plus hours his firm billed for the case. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Pantas said Zimmerman did what anyone else would have done: He cashed the check.
“It’s up to the bankruptcy trustee who they pay and who they don’t pay,” Pantas said. “I had health issues and had better things to worry about. What’s the point of being bitter?”
He stressed that other associates of his now-defunct firm handled the case, and he has no recollection of Zimmerman.
“I don’t remember the guy at all, and I don’t even know if I ever met him,” Pantas said “I don’t want to remember him.”
State corporation records show the company Zimmerman sued is no longer in business.
Prosecutors handling the case declined to comment on whether they think the matter would be relevant at Friday’s bond hearing.
Trayvon Martin’s family attorney, Benjamin Crump, said the incident underscores what Judge Kenneth Lester wrote when he first revoked Zimmerman’s bond: Zimmerman “does not respect the law or the integrity of the judicial process.”
“I think a $10,000 sanction is huge; they don’t sanction you for nothing,” Crump said. “I think it should be taken into consideration by the judge, because this has to do with whether he is going to appear in court when he is supposed to.”
Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 26 killing. Zimmerman has claimed self defense.
His case became so controversial that when Zimmerman turned to the Internet for online donations, people contributed over $200,000. But Zimmerman didn’t tell that to the judge at his bond hearing, and so his bond was revoked, and his wife was charged with perjury.
His current lawyer, O’Mara, said he didn’t find out about the money raised on the web until days after Zimmerman was granted bail.
In his court ruling earlier this month, the judge said the state’s evidence in the case is strong, and Zimmerman’s chances for bond are hurt not so much because of the money, but because a past arrest and a domestic violence injunction weigh against him.
“Mr. Zimmerman’s failure to disclose to the court the existence of the donated funds at the initial bail hearing was wrong,” O’Mara wrote, “and Mr. Zimmerman accepts responsibility for his part in allowing the court to be misled as to his financial circumstances.”