Because it is a sovereign nation, the Miccosukee Tribe is immune from a lawsuit filed by its former lawyers, a Miami appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The ruling was a reversal for Miami attorneys Guy Lewis and Michael Tein, who last year sued in state court and won in a long-running and bitter legal battle between the tribe and its former attorneys. The firm’s partners accused the tribe and its new attorney of engaging in a “criminal scheme” to ruin their reputations through a series of bogus lawsuits.
Miami’s Third District Court of Appeal, in its opinion, was not unsympathetic to Lewis and Tein but said it was bound by established law.
“Granting immunity to Indian tribes is a policy choice made by our elected representatives to further important federal and state interests,” Judge Robert Luck wrote. “It is a choice to protect the tribes understanding that others may be injured and without a remedy. The immunity juice, our federal lawmakers have declared, is worth the squeeze.”
An attorney representing Lewis and Tein declined to discuss the opinion. “We are exploring our options,” said attorney Roberto Martinez.
Lewis and Tein had largely prevailed in fighting off allegations levied over years by their former client. Both have testified that the ugly legal fights over five years decimated their practice and ruined their reputations.
In 2016, the Miccosukees agreed to pay Lewis and Tein $4 million in attorney’s fees stemming from the tribe’s series of failed lawsuits. And tribe attorney Bernardo Roman is now facing disbarment for his conduct surrounding the filing of the lawsuits against Lewis and Tein.
Wednesday’s decision is the latest in the long-running legal drama between the well-known lawyers and the small West Miami-Dade tribe that runs a lucrative casino off Tamiami Trail and Krome Avenue.
Lewis is the former U.S. Attorney for South Florida. Tein is also a federal prosecutor. Between 2005 and 2010, their firm represented the tribe in a host of legal issues under then-tribal chairman Billy Cypress.
After Cypress was ousted as chairman in 2011, the tribe went to federal court, 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 Cypress to get kickbacks while keeping the rest of the tribe in the dark about Cypress’ spending.
A federal judge 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.”
In a similar state case, another judge 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 sued the tribe for damages in August 2016. A Miami-Dade judge ruled that the tribe, through its earlier litigation, had waived sovereign immunity, which generally protects Indian nations from lawsuits by U.S. citizens. Wednesday’s decision overturned the judge.