A father teared up and hugged his teenage son Friday when a Miami-Dade circuit judge held the Miccosukee Tribe responsible for paying a $3.2 million judgment to the pair, who lost their wife and mother in a head-on car crash caused by a tribe member.
Carlos Bermudez, 44, and his son Mathew, 16, have been waiting four years to collect the judgment from the Miccosukee driver and her father. Tammy Gwen Billie was behind the wheel of an uninsured car, owned by her dad, when she crashed, killing 30-year-old Liliana Bermudez on the Tamiami Trail in 1998.
“It’s been a long time,” Carlos Bermudez, a truck driver, said after the judge ruled.
“This is a major victory for the Bermudez family,” said their attorney, Ramon M. Rodriguez.
The Miccosukee Tribe plans to appeal the decision, however, so it’s unclear how much longer the family might have to wait to collect any payout.
The high-profile dispute arose because Billie and her father Jimmie Bert maintained they could not pay the judgment, which a jury awarded after the defendants admitted liability at a 2009 trial. Rodriguez asserted that since the tribe paid for the $3.1 million legal defense and directed the strategy, the Miccosukees were effectively a “party” to the wrongful-death lawsuit, though the tribe was not named as a defendant.
Lawyers for the tribe countered that the tribe has sovereign immunity under federal law and could not be held liable for the judgment. But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick disagreed, saying the tribe could not hide behind that shield in state circuit court because it paid all of the legal expenses and controlled the direction of the case.
The judge cited a Miami-Dade Third District Court of Appeal decision involving a non-Native American Indian lawsuit to justify his ruling.
“I think there’s a waiver of sovereign immunity,” Dresnick declared, marking the first time a judge has made such a ruling in a Florida circuit court. “They are a party.”
As a result, Dresnick added the Miccosukee Tribe as a “debtor” to the judgment, which now totals more than $4 million with interest.
Rodriguez, who has waged a seemingly quixotic battle to recover the judgment for the Bermudez family, distilled the central issue for the judge.
“The millions of dollars that the Miccosukee Tribe paid in legal fees was designed to prevent the Bermudez family from being compensated for their tragic loss,” Rodriguez wrote in his court motion. “The Miccosukee Tribe made the choice to spend its significant resources on litigation instead of paying down the final judgment.”
The Miccosukees’ lead lawyer, Bernardo Roman III, and his legal staff strongly disagreed. Roman countered that even though he turned over copies of 61 checks to Rodriguez showing the tribe directly paid the defendants’ attorneys — former federal prosecutors Guy Lewis and Michael Tein — the Miccosukees did not give up their sovereignty. Therefore, he contended, the tribe cannot be named as another party in the suit for the purpose of paying the judgment.
“The tribe is absolutely immune,” Miccosukee lawyer Yinet Pino told the judge. “That is federal law.”
Pino, assisted by attorney Yesenia Rey at Friday’s hearing, said the Miccosukees plan to appeal.
At the hearing, both lawyers asserted that the defendants’ legal bills were paid as the result of a “fraudulent scheme” by its former chairman, Billy Cypress, who was ousted from his long-held post in early 2010.
The tribe has since sued Cypress, accusing him of embezzling $26 million from the Miccosukees. The tribe has also sued Lewis and Tein, who once represented the Miccosukees and Cypress on tax and other legal issues, in separate state malpractice and federal racketeering cases.
The Bermudez family’s wrongful-death case has sparked hostile litigation between Rodriguez, the Miccosukee Tribe and Lewis and Tein.
In April, the two prominent Miami defense lawyers were slapped with a $50,000 fine after Dresnick, the judge, decided he had originally sanctioned them too little for a post-judgment violation over their failure to promptly turn over certain financial records of their two Miccosukee clients.
The judge raised the fine from $3,500 after realizing he had made a mistake when he initially found the partners’ legal fees were not that high and their bills were not paid by the Miccosukee Tribe.
Dresnick said the $3.1 million in fees charged by Lewis and Tein to represent the two Miccosukee Indians in the fatal car-crash case made “my eyes spin in their sockets.”
“I’m shocked by the amount of these fees,” said Dresnick, a veteran judge who presided over a three-day sanctions hearing and ordered the pair to pay the fine to Rodriguez. “I’m just flabbergasted.”
Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, and Tein, an ex-federal prosecutor in his office, were accused of committing perjury after they testified at a previous sanctions hearing in August 2011 that their two clients actually paid their legal fees — not the Miccosukee Tribe.
Both defense lawyers had told the judge back then that any sanctions fine would come out of their pockets, not their clients’ or the tribe’s.
But Lewis and Tein made those assertions before the Bermudez family’s lawyer discovered $3.1 million in checks issued directly to their law firm by the tribe for the defense of the two Miccosukee clients. The tribe’s lawyer, Roman, said he turned them over to Rodriguez after the August 2011 sanctions hearing because the Miccosukee’s new leader, Colley Billie, and other members believed Lewis and Tein were hiding from the judge evidence of who actually paid them, and how much, for their legal services.
“They dropped this gift on your doorstep,” the judge told Rodriguez Friday, “because they wanted to use you to hurt Lewis and Tein.”
In their defense, Lewis and Tein previously argued that their Miccosukee clients borrowed money from the tribe to pay the legal fees.
Ultimately, Dresnick found in a final order that Lewis and Tein “did not commit perjury, did not engage in fraud on the court … and did not fail in their obligation of candor” at the previous sanctions hearing.
“But had I known [then] what I know now, the sanction amount that I originally ordered would have been $50,000 and not [$3,500],” Dresnick said from the bench in April. “So I’m raising it to $50,000.”
After the judge’s decision, the Florida Bar’s grievance committee launched an ethics investigation into Lewis and Tein, according to spokeswoman Francine Walker.
The source of the legal payments to Lewis and Tein carries importance.
If the funds came from the tribe as opposed to the law team’s clients, Billie and Bert, it means there indeed was more than enough money available to pay the outstanding 2009 civil judgment.