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A house in foreclosure and a baby with an engaged assistant helped lead to disbarment

Miami lawyer Peter Fellows’ disbarment started Thursday after an episode during which his legal assistant — and baby’s mother — lived in a Pembroke Pines house while he represented the homeowner in a foreclosure.

In addition to that conflict of interest, the referee found that Fellows lied to Florida Bar investigators in another matter.

Fellows, a University of Florida law graduate, had been a Bar member since 1999.

According to the facts in the referee’s report, Fellows was hired by Kerry-Ann Benjamin to help when the Pembroke Pines house owned by the separating Benjamins fell into foreclosure.

Kerry-Ann Benjamin got co-worker Phillip Thompson to buy the home on paper in January 2006. Benjamin kept living there and paying the mortgage until she couldn’t, and the house went back into foreclosure years later.

So she could stay in the home, Benjamin sublet a part of the four-bedroom, two-bathroom house to Fellows’ legal assistant Sherine Wright and Wright’s then-fiance. Wright began having problems at the security gate, which is when she learned Thompson technically owned the house and it was in foreclosure.

“Wright suggested that Benjamin contact (Fellows), with whom Wright had established a quasi-professional/quasi-romantic relationship, for assistance regarding the foreclosure proceedings,” the referee’s report states.

Thompson, as the official owner, hired Fellows and Benjamin paid his legal fees. Fellows, given power of attorney in this matter by Thompson, worked on the foreclosure and on his relationship with Wright

“Throughout this time, Wright continued to live in the home and (Fellows) also began to frequent the residence — the very subject of the representation — in furtherance of his relationship with Wright,” the referee’s report reads. “Although (Fellows) testified that he did not live there, he admitted to occasionally spending the night and maintaining a romantic relationship with Wright. In fact, (Fellows’) own child was born to Wright in August of 2013, and also lived in the home.”

Meanwhile, when Thompson needed to deal with Fellows’ office, usually he worked with Wright. He thought she was functioning as Thompson’s assistant.

So, he told Bar investigators, he didn’t blink at signing a contract in September 2013 that he thought was a short sale to sell the home to Wright Time Now. He claimed he didn’t know Wright Time was a company Wright started in 2007.

“This was followed by a lease agreement executed on Nov. 25, 2013, the terms of which allowed Wright (and Fellows’ child) to live in the residence rent-free for up to four years, unless and until Wright received a payout on an unrelated insurance claim,” the referee’s report said. “For his part, (Fellows) denied having any involvement in either contract.”

But it was Fellows who had some explaining to do in early 2015 when Thompson’s wife told him you’re still the owner of record and who’s living there?

Thompson said Fellows eventually admitted Wright was living there. Fellows claimed Thompson knew this the whole time. He tried to evict Wright, failed and eventually the home was lost in foreclosure.

Fellows testified that his representation of Thompson was to “handle all (Thompson’s) affairs concerning the house” but when asked about leases and contracts, Fellows “claimed to be without knowledge and suggested Wright should answer those questions.”

The referee found that Fellows not only didn’t serve his client, but “merely prolonged the foreclosure proceedings so that Wright and his son would have a place to live...”

And that runs Fellows into the conflict-of-interest issue, of which he was also found guilty. Fellows also violated rules regarding direct solicitation and responsibilities of assistants who aren’t attorneys, according to the report.

In the other disciplinary matter, Fellows was found guilty of not communicating properly with a client in a child support case, including clarifying what fees were nonrefundable. Then, in the investigation, the referee found he fibbed to Florida Bar investigators about documentation investigators requested from him.

The referee recommended Fellows be suspended for 91 days for “serious, egregious misconduct.”

The state Supreme Court agreed with the referee’s conclusions, but decided the appropriate punishment was disbarment.

Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. He drinks coladas whole. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.
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