Legal Ethics

Judge should lose job for mishandling a case 10 years ago, when still in practice, ethics panel says

Saying that a South Florida judge “committed serious, flagrant violations of ethical rules” years ago, as a practicing lawyer handling a class action matter, the Judicial Qualifications Commision panel has recommended that Broward Circuit Judge Laura Watson be removed from the bench.

Instead of taking responsibility, at a February ethics trial, for her conduct concerning a decade-old class action settlement in a bad-faith case against an insurance company, Watson attacked the character of JQC ethics panel members and the prosecutor in the case, wrote 5th District Court of Appeal Judge Kerry Evander in a Tuesday recommendation to the state supreme court.

In a blistering report (PDF), Evander said Watson had chosen to violate ethical prohibitions, despite advance warning, due to greed, when a $14.5 million settlement was offered in 2004 by Progressive Insurance Co. to some, but not all, of the parties in a complex case. The Daily Business Review (sub. req.) and the South Florida Sun Sentinel have stories.

Watson argued that the JQC lacked jurisdiction to try an attorney ethics case. However, Evander said the JVC does have the power to discipline judges for prior attorney conduct that demonstrates unfitness to serve on the bench and also said Watson’s conduct at trial demonstrated that she currently lacks the necessary understanding of legal ethics to be a judge.

“Judges are held to stricter ethical standards than lawyers because more rectitude is expected of them,” he wrote. “Judge Watson’s present lack of understanding of the rules regulating the Florida Bar, and the most basic ethical obligations imposed on lawyers, amply demonstrates ‘present unfitness’ to serve.”

Attorney Bob Sweetapple represented Watson in the ethics case.

“We don’t think she did anything wrong that would warrant her removal from the bench,” he told the Sun Sentinel. “We think the recommendation is fatally flawed both legally and factually, and we’re looking forward to making our case before the Supreme Court.” It will decide whether or not to follow the JQC’s recommendation.

Contacted by the ABA Journal, Sweetapple said he views the JQC’s case against Watson as unfair and frightening.

Watson was never found personally liable in related tort litigation that concluded years ago. Yet the JQC is criticizing her for “having the audacity to profess her innocence” and asserting much the same defense in the legal ethics case that was persuasive to the trial court in the tort case, Sweetapple said. “So she defended herself for eight years in the courts and was fully exonerated personally, but is somehow a bad person because she had the audacity to say she did nothing wrong? Where are we living?”

This is the only ethics complaint that has ever been made against Watson, and not a single client testified against her in the JQC case, Sweetapple continued. He also said the JQC refused to let Watson present evidence about the value of her work in the class action.

The decade-old settlement that led to Tuesday’s removal recommendation involved hundreds of medical providers who retained several law firms, including Watson’s, to represent them in cases claiming that Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. had failed to pay some 2,500 personal injury protection (PIP) insurance claims and associated attorney’s fees. When those law firms decided their clients should also pursue bad-faith claims against Progressive, they asked three additional law firms to handle the bad-faith litigation for their clients.

Then, when Progressive, negotiating only with the PIP case counsel, offered a tempting settlement, the original law firms agreed to a secret global settlement of all of the claims. That resulted in a reduced recovery in legal fees to the bad-faith case counsel and no recovery for clients in the bad-faith case who were not also clients of the law firms handling the PIP litigation against Progressive, explains an earlier Law 360 article.

The three law firms handling the bad-faith case against Progressive eventually won a a $3 million judgment for attorney’s fees in Palm Beach Circuit Court in 2008, which was upheld on appeal. In its 2012 opinion (PDF), the 4th District Court of Appeal said the trial court had correctly called the law firms’ legal fight for compensation “a case study for a course on professional conduct involving multi-party joint representation agreements and the ethical pitfalls surrounding such agreements when the interests of some of the attorneys and/or their clients come into conflict.”

Although Watson was never found personally liable in this fully litigated case, the JQC is acting as if she was, Sweetapple told the ABA Journal.

“This is unpredecented,” he said of the ethics case against Watson. “It will destroy the independence of the judiciary to open the door to this.”

Allowing the JQC to focus on “one isolated instance” of a judge’s long-ago law practice, as they have in Watson’s case, means every judge is potentially at risk for similar disciplinary recommendations, he contended. “If we have a private, secret body that can go confront judges about their past conduct … you control the judiciary. It’s a frightening prospect.”

A legal ethics case against Watson, as an attorney, came to a halt when she was elected to the bench in 2012. However, the Judicial Qualifications Commission then pursued the judicial ethics case against Watson.

“JQC proceedings are constitutionally authorized for the alleged misconduct of a judge during the time she was a lawyer,” wrote Evander in the Tuesday report to the state supreme court. “There is thus no ‘escape to the bench’ for lawyers who violate the rules regulating the Florida Bar.”

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