Legal Ethics

Judge Orders Lawyers to Return $450K in Fees

A retired South Florida cruise ship injury lawyer and his former associate were ordered to return nearly $450,000 in fees collected under a secret deal after the injury lawyer withdrew from a series of personal injury cases.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Herbert Stettin, who supervised Jay Wingate’s withdrawal amid bribery allegations, became aware of the agreement in January and held a contempt hearing, the Daily Business Review reports.

The fee-splitting arrangement involved Wingate, his former associate Peter Sotolongo and fellow Miami admiralty lawyer Brett Rivkind of Rivkind Pedraza & Margulies, the paper reports. The three were reportedly dividing the proceeds from 77 crew injury cases brought against Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

Stettin found Wingate and Sotolongo in contempt, but found no misconduct by Rivkind. The judge referred the matter to the Florida Bar.

Wingate appeared to walk away from the cases in January 2008 after allegations emerged that his employees were paying off cruise line investigators to learn confidential settlement terms that were being considered by the company’s lawyers.

But according to the judge’s order, the three lawyers subsequently entered into a fee-splitting agreement.

“I conclude that it is a secret, self-serving and illegal arrangement intended as a means of evading this court’s order concerning Wingate’s claim to fees and costs from files which he abandoned,” Stettin wrote in an order this week.

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