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Florida Supreme Court suspends Winters and Yonker for misconduct in leaving Mulholland law firm, including theft for removal of Mulholland firm’s client files

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent disciplinary opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida suspending Florida lawyer William Winters from practice for 91 days and Mark Yonker for 60 days.  The consolidated case is The Florida Bar vs. William Henry Winters and Marc Edward Yonkers, Case SC10-1333 (September 6, 2012) and the Supreme Court’s opinion is here:

As I have previously reported, William Winters and Marc Yonker are personal injury lawyers who now have offices in Florida and other states.  In a highly publicized (and very contentious) case, the lawyers were prosecuted by The Florida Bar for their alleged misconduct related to their actions before, during, and after leaving the Mulholland law firm.  According to the opinion, the Bar Complaint(s) alleged that:

“in 2001, Winters and Yonker made secret plans to leave the Mulholland Firm and begin practicing together, and that in the process, Winters and Yonker: (1) themselves and through a former paralegal for the Mulholland Firm, solicited Mulholland Firm clients to terminate representation by the Mulholland Firm and be represented by Winters’ (2) made misrepresentations to the Mulholland Firm and to Mulholland Firm clients; (3) made copies of and took possession of Mulholland Firm client files without authorization; and (4) improperly used a third attorney‘s name, who never actually joined the new firm, in their new firm name on documents. The complaints alleged that through this conduct, Respondents violated numerous Rules Regulating the Florida Bar.  The Bar filed the Complaint after Mulholland sued the lawyers and won a jury verdict of $3 million which was reduced in 2008 to $1.7 million.”

After extended proceedings were held in 2011, the referee found the lawyers not guilty of the most serious Bar rule violations and recommended that they receive an admonishment for minor misconduct.  The referee also criticized the Bar for waiting until after the Mulholland litigation was completed to prosecute the case(s).

The Florida Supreme Court opinion found that the lawyers solicited clients of the Mulholland law firm to terminate that law firm and hire their new law firm to represent them, made misrepresentations to the Mulholland law firm, made copies of and took files belonging to the firm, and improperly used a third lawyer’s name in their firm name.  According to the opinion, “(t)he Bar argues that Winters and Yonker’s ‘personal use’ of the Mulholland firm’s client files constituted acts of criminal theft under section 812.014, Florida Statutes (2001), and that theft inherently reflects adversely on a lawyer‘s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer. We agree…Winters‘ and Yonker’s conduct in appropriating client files from their employer for their own personal use constitutes theft. The referee’s findings do not support the recommendation that Respondents be found not guilty of violating rule 4-8.4(b).  Accordingly, this recommendation is disapproved.”

The opinion also found that the lawyers violated rules 4-8.4(c), and 4-8.4(d), rejected the referee’s recommendation of admonishment, and imposed a 91 day rehabilitative suspension on William Winters and a 60 day suspension on Mark Yonker.

Bottom line:  As I have previously reported, the Florida Supreme Court has been closely scrutinizing Bar disciplinary cases and in several prior cases has increased sanctions that were recommended by referees or agreed upon by the Bar and the accused lawyer.  This case (and the Mulholland lawsuit) has drawn extensive media attention and the opinion appears to follow that same trend.

Be careful out there!

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and/or guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Disclaimer: this e-mail does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

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Clearwater, Florida 33759

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