Lawyer used deceptive 'mobile claim center' to solicit Hurricane Ian clients, Florida Bar alleges
A lawyer is denying allegations that she solicited Hurricane Ian clients using a truck designed to look like an operation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or a state-run site.
Lawyer Jennifer Perez said in a Nov. 21 court filing the Florida Bar’s petition for her emergency suspension is based on “a clear misunderstanding of the underlying facts and circumstances in this matter.” The site was actually used to counsel and provide meeting spaces for existing corporate clients, Perez said.
In a Nov. 17 petition, the Florida Bar sought the emergency suspension of Perez and the disgorgement of fees that she earned signing up clients using the truck. The bar included pictures of the truck here and here.
The bar said it became aware of the truck after receiving a photograph of the vehicle from an anonymous source. The truck was in the parking lot of a defunct Fort Myers, Florida, hotel, and it was partly covered in black plastic. Visible above and below the plastic were the words “mobile claim center” and a telephone number. In smaller type was the name of a partner with a Louisiana law firm, Gauthier Murphy & Houghtaling.
When bar investigators visited the Gauthier firm’s website, they found an address for a Florida office and the name of a different partner, Florida-licensed lawyer Perez, as the contact for that office. The website said the firm offered claims management legal services for Hurricane Ian victims and included an online form that claimants could fill out to be contacted by the firm.
When investigators visited the listed address in Fort Myers, it led to the closed motel and the truck in the parking lot. A nonlawyer on-site was setting up a tent next to the truck and covering part of the writing on the truck with the black plastic. He told a bar investigator that the mobile claim center was generally perceived to be a FEMA site.
The bar contends that the black plastic covered up information about the firm to create the impression that the truck was part of FEMA or a state-run “insurance village” that connected hurricane victims with insurers.
Perez said in her response the site of the firm’s 18-wheeler truck was at least a 30-minute drive from the insurance village, and it had a “prominently displayed sign” that read: “This Is Not FEMA.”
The hotel where the truck was parked had been operated by a firm client, she said. The sign was placed on the site after she learned of community confusion.
The truck was used to counsel existing business clients, and anyone else was turned away, Perez said. She had represented business clients as part of a team involved in COVID-19 insurance coverage litigation but was working remotely because of the pandemic. Many of the clients were calling the firm for help with the claims and reconstruction process, she said.
The plastic was supposed to cover the entire outside of the trailer, while the Louisiana firm followed ethics advice to set up an interstate firm in Florida, Perez’s court filing said.