The Miccosukee tribe will pay $4 million to its former attorneys after targeting them in a series of failed lawsuits repeatedly rejected by courts as frivolous.
The settlement is a significant victory for prominent Miami lawyers Guy Lewis and Michael Tein, who have long been mired in legal battles over their former representation of the Indian tribe, whose members live in several reservations in the Everglades.
The money goes toward settling legal costs the two incurred in fighting the lawsuits, which resulted in judges sanctioning the tribe and its former lawyer, Bernardo Roman III. A Florida Bar inquiry into Roman is also pending.
The financial settlement was disclosed in state and federal court documents filed earlier this month. Lewis, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami, and Tein, a former federal prosecutor, declined to comment.
As part of the settlement, the tribe has dropped its appeal in the failed federal lawsuit against Lewis and Tein. The lawyers are still seeking money for fees from Roman, who could not be reached for comment. The tribe’s current lawyer also could not be reached for comment.
In 2012, the tribe went to federal court to sue its chairman, Billy Cypress, accusing him of stealing $26 million from the tribe to spend on numerous gambling trips, shopping sprees, real-estate investments and luxury cars.
The tribe claimed that Lewis and Tein conspired with Billie to get kickbacks while keeping the rest of the tribe in the dark about Cypress’ spending.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke later dismissed the tribe’s claims and ordered the tribe and Roman sanctioned for filing a lawsuit that featured “no evidence or only patently frivolous evidence.” At the time, she ordered the tribe and Roman to pay $1 million in sanctions to Lewis, Tein and another of the tribe’s former attorneys, Dexter Lehtinen.
An appeals court later agreed, saying the tribe’s 314-page lawsuit seemed to be nothing more than “an attempt to create the impression of specificity through page-number ‘shock and awe.’ ”
“The terrible shame is that the tribe and its lawyers were able to prosecute these lies for years, leaving a wake of destructive litigation that cost millions of dollars to defend,” Paul Calli, Lewis and Tein’s lawyer, told the Miami Herald last December after the appeals court ruling. “Thankfully, the courts have put a stop to it.”
The two represented the tribe for five years, starting around 2005. A tribal lawsuit against Lewis and Tein in state court likewise failed.
In that case, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Thornton wrote that the tribe and its lawyer “in bad faith” continued its lawsuit “in the face of overwhelming evidence demonstrating the claims against Lewis and Tein were unfounded and frivolous.”
Lewis and Tein could still file its own lawsuit seeking more damages against the Miccosukees and its former lawyer.
The Florida Bar ethics investigation into Roman is continuing after investigators found probable cause that he committed breaches while representing the Miccosukees.
Lewis and Tein also filed Bar complaints against two other Miami-Dade lawyers in a separate legal battle involving the tribe.
They are Ramon Rodriguez, who won a so-far-uncollected $3.1 million jury verdict against a tribal woman for a fatal car wreck, and Jose Herrera, who represented the woman and her father after the trial. Bar investigators found probable cause in the ethics complaints, but both men are fighting the allegations.
The 600-member tribe remains mired in controversy.
In March, Cypress returned to power as the chairman, seven years after he was ousted from the position. He and the tribe remain embroiled in a fight with the IRS over federal taxes on lucrative gambling proceeds from the tribe’s casino in West Miami-Dade.
The IRS estimates that the tribe itself owes more than $262 million in unpaid withholding taxes and an additional $441 million in penalties and interest.