A Miami judge slapped two prominent defense lawyers with a $50,000 fine Wednesday after deciding he had originally sanctioned them too little on the mistaken belief that their legal fees were not that high and their bills were not paid by the Miccosukee Tribe.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick said the $3 million in fees charged by attorneys Guy Lewis and Michael Tein to represent two Miccosukee Indians in a civil fatal car-crash trial in 2009 “made my eyes spin in their sockets.”
“I’m just 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 an opposing plaintiff’s attorney. “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.
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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 plaintiff’s lawyer in the car-crash case discovered $3.1 million in checks issued directly to their law firm by the tribe for the defense of the two Miccosukee clients.
On Wednesday, Dresnick found that Lewis and Tein did not commit perjury and did not try to mislead him 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 ruled in his order from the bench. “So I’m raising it to $50,000.”
The judge could also order Lewis and Tein to pay the legal fees and costs of the plaintiff’s lawyer who lodged the sanctions complaint against them. The Florida Bar is also monitoring the dispute.
The source of the legal payments to Lewis and Tein carries importance.
If the funds came from the West Miami-Dade tribe as opposed to their clients, Tammy Gwen Billie and Jimmie Bert, it means there was indeed more than enough money available to pay an outstanding 2009 civil judgment.
Billie and Bert have refused to pay the jury’s $3.2 million award, insisting they cannot afford it — even though each collects as much as $160,000 a year from the tribe’s gambling distributions to members.
The latest sanctions hearing, which did not result in a contempt finding, marked the climax of a Miami legal brawl involving Lewis and Tein, the Miccosukee Tribe and the lawyer who won the wrongful death case on behalf of the family of a young mother.
Lewis and Tein’s main client, Billie, killed Liliana Bermudez, 30, when she crashed her father’s car into the Bermudez family’s vehicle on the Tamiami Trail in 1998.
The lawyer for the victim’s family, Ramon M. Rodriguez, filed the perjury and misrepresentation complaint with the judge after Dresnick sanctioned Lewis and Tein $3,500 in September 2011 for a discovery violation.
The fine stemmed from their law firm’s stalling tactics over disclosing financial information about Billie and her father, Bert, after the civil judgment. Bert owned the uninsured Acura Legend his daughter was driving.
After Wednesday’s ruling, Rodriguez said he was pleased with the outcome. “We are going to continue to do our best to collect the Bermudez judgment,” he said.
Attorney Paul Calli, who represented Lewis and Tein in the latest sanctions hearing, unsuccessfully urged the judge not to increase the fine.
“This has been a heavy price to pay,” Calli told the judge, noting that Lewis and Tein’s law firm has shrunk and their reputations have been damaged by the publicity. “I don’t think you should increase the sanctions award.”
The judge was not swayed. Dresnick noted that Rodriguez had offered to settle the Bermudez case for $650,000 before trial, which was rejected by Lewis and Tein’s clients.
The judge also noted that Lewis and Tein ran up almost $1 million in legal bills after their clients admitted liability at trial and the jury issued the multimillion-dollar judgment.
Their law firm billed $550 to $750 an hour for legal services.
A Miami attorney who specializes in defending lawyers facing ethical complaints said, “Judge Dresnick was obviously quite miffed.”
“He greatly increased a modest financial sanction against Mr. Lewis and Mr. Tein for their discovery violation,” said lawyer Andrew Berman, who has represented attorneys Hugh Rodham, Hank Adorno and Jeremy Alters.
“Judge Dresnick indicated [in 2011] that he would have imposed a more severe sanction had the evidence shown the tribe was funding the defense,” Berman added. “With the new evidence supporting that conclusion, he increased the sanctions accordingly.”
Earlier this month, Dresnick said in an order that “one of the matters of concern” to him was the defense attorneys’ “obligation of candor to the court.” Dresnick raised that issue because the Miccosukee Tribe issued 61 checks directly to the Lewis Tein law firm for $3.1 million in the representation of the two tribal members — evidence that the defense attorneys never disclosed at the previous sanctions hearing in August 2011.
At the latest sanctions hearing, Lewis and Tein apologized to the judge for not recognizing his concern about clarifying the issue of who funded their clients’ defense.
The controversy over who paid their law firm’s legal fees erupted soon after Tein had testified back in 2011 that its client was not the Miccosukee Tribe. “The defendants have been responsible for our fees and they ... had been paying our fees,” Tein swore to the judge. Lewis agreed with his partner’s testimony.
The Miccosukee Tribe, which underwent a major political shift with the ouster of Chairman Billy Cypress in early 2010, was outraged by Tein’s testimony — and turned over the 61 checks to the opposing lawyer, Rodriguez.
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.