This morning, attorneys are arguing before a Florida appeals court about who gets access to client files kept in attorneys’ offices – arguments that arise out of the huge foreclosure fraud mess that Floridians face. It’s a showdown occurring over in West Palm Beach at the Fourth District Court of Appeals, where a three judge panel made up of Justices Martha C. Warner, Fred A. Hazouri, and Spencer D. Levine, respectively, are scheduled to preside. (Follow the case through the online docket, although the live video feed of the oral argument is not saved for later review.)
What’s going on? As reported today in a good background piece by Peter Franceschina of the Sun Sentinel, entitled “Foreclosure firm challenges attorney general’s right to investigate,” the Florida Attorney General is arguing that the Attorney General’s Office has the legal right to go through client files as part of its investigation into the practices of foreclosure law firms suspected of robo-signing and other bad acts. The Florida Attorney General asserts that client files can be subpoenaed by the AG, allowing his staff to go through the files, page by page, line by line.
On the other side of the argument in that courtroom battle today are lawyers from the Florida law firm of Shapiro & Fishman. They are challenging the Attorney General’s office subpoena and arguing that state law does not allow for this review of client files. Their position is not based upon client privilege; they argue that it’s because the AG doesn’t have legal standing to investigate deceptive trade practices by Florida lawyers. Florida law, they assert, gives that responsibility solely to the Florida Bar.
This isn’t the only reason for this fight. There are conflicting lower court decisions pending before the appellate court. In the one being fought here by Shapiro & Fishman, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jack Cox ruled in the law firm’s favor and the AG appealed that decision. In another similar lawsuit being pursued by the Florida Attorney General against the Law Offices of David J. Stern, Broward Circuit Judge Eileen O’Connor ruled that the Attorney General’s Office had the legal right to subpoena law firm files — and now, of course, the Law Offices of David J. Stern have appealed that court order.
Bottom line, here’s the important question: does the Florida Bar alone have the task of bringing Foreclosure Fraud law firms to justice for the bad acts that they may have committed — or does the Florida Attorney General (who is currently investigating 7 different law firms for their possibly illegal acts in foreclosure proceedings) also have that authority?
Who Will Ultimately Be Responsible for Making Foreclosure Fraud Law Firms Accountable for Their Actions?
The Florida Bar Association is a self-governing body. Lawyers in Florida are to regulate themselves. Will the Fourth Court of Appeals change this, in view of the rampant bad acts we are seeing — things like those sanctioned by Judge Maxine Lando recently, where she found the head of a law firm in contempt of court? Will the Florida Attorney General be allowed to proceed? Stay tuned.