Lawyer accused of pursuing client-poaching 'modus operandi' hit with $2.3M verdict
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The Florida Injury Law Firm based in Orlando, Florida, was awarded $2.3 million last week in a lawsuit against a former associate accused of violating an employment contract by stealing the firm’s best clients.
The jury found that lawyer Thomas P. Schmitt was liable for violating his employment agreement, report Law.com and Law360.
The Florida Injury Law Firm and its founder, Johnny A. Pineyro, were plaintiffs.
Schmitt indicated that he’s not done with the legal fight.
“This is just the beginning,” he told the ABA Journal in an email. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Law.com posted the Feb. 21 jury verdict form, which was filed Feb. 22, and the law firm’s third amended suit filed against Schmitt.
The suit alleged that Schmitt has a “modus operandi of gaining employment at law firms with the undisclosed intent of stealing as many clients as possible.” He had been fired by two other firms, one of which sued him, and had been sued by a third firm, the complaint alleged.
When he left the Florida Injury Law Firm, Schmitt and an associate who assisted him cherry-picked the most lucrative cases to steal, the complaint alleged. One case, for example, settled for $1 million just one week after it was transferred to Schmitt.
The employment agreement said Schmitt could not contact clients of the firm at the end of his employment unless the client first contacted Schmitt. If Schmitt was working on a client file, the client would be notified by a joint letter with the firm.
In cases originated by the firm, the firm would be entitled to 80% of all fees generated in the matter. If Schmitt originated a client, he would owe 50% to 60% of the net fee to the firm, depending on the length of the representation.
Schmitt sent a letter, however, using a forged electronic signature for Pineyro, according to the suit. He succeeded in “luring away” more than 50 clients whose cases have a collective value of millions of dollars, the complaint said.
Jurors said damages were $2.3 million for the breached contract, and the quantum meruit value of the firm’s services to its former clients was nearly $980,000. The defendants are Schmitt and his new firm, the Florida Personal Injury Law Team. Pineyro can opt for either amount, but not both, according to Law.com.
Pineyro told Law.com that he wanted firms to know about the importance of performing background checks before hiring new lawyers. Schmitt had left important information off his resumé and had falsely claimed that he studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, the suit alleged.
“Call the references because I, unfortunately, did not do that with him,” Pineyro told Law.com. “It was every lawyer’s nightmare.”