Laura M. Watson (CANDACE WEST / COPYRIGHT 2013)
In a damning report to the Florida Supreme Court, the judge presiding over the ethics trial of Broward Circuit Judge Laura Watson has recommended her removal from the bench.
Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Kerry Evander said the state Judicial Qualifications Commission panel that tried her in February concurred with the findings of a Palm Beach circuit judge and concluded that Watson “committed serious, flagrant violations of ethical rules” as an attorney before becoming a judge.
Evander emphasized in Tuesday’s report her unwillingness to admit wrongdoing and her many attempts to attack the character of the panel that heard her two-day trial in February and the appointed prosecutor, Coral Gables attorney Miles McGrane.
Watson’s defense and character witnesses couldn’t overcome the egregious nature of her offenses, Evander said.
“Judges are held to stricter ethical standards than lawyers because more rectitude is expected of them,” he said. “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.”
Watson defended herself at trial along with co-counsel Robert Sweetapple of Sweetapple, Broeker & Varkas of Boca Raton. Evander recalled Sweetapple’s impassioned closing remarks and insistence that “we grow from our mistakes.”
“However, this case does not involve a ‘look back’ into the judge’s private life or high school transgressions, but violations of fundamental rules governing lawyers,” Evander said. “Judge Watson admits no ‘mistakes,’ let alone learning from them.
“At its core, this case is about greed,” he concluded. “Any large pot of money can create temptation, just as any aggregate settlement can trip up unwary lawyers.”
Watson was one of a group of personal injury protection lawyers who in 2002 retained a group of Miami attorneys who were experts in bad faith claims.
The two groups worked in tandem to pressure the defendant, Progressive Insurance Co., into settling a large number of cases brought by doctors and clinics that were being shorted or denied payment for services.
Progressive covertly approached the PIP attorneys in 2004 and reached a $14.5 million settlement.
The PIP attorneys cut the bad faith attorneys out of their share of legal fees and refused to explain to them the terms of the settlement. Watson and her cohorts also did not disclose the terms of aggregate settlement to their clients; these were clients that were not sharing in the settlement equally because of side deals that gave some more.
“Solely by way of example, if $4.5 million had been allocated to PIP claims, and $10 million allocated to bad faith claims, the PIP claimants would still have received all their benefits, and $6 million would have been available from the bad faith settlement for distribution to clients,” Evander said.
Instead, the PIP attorneys arbitrarily allocated $1.75 million to bad faith claims so they could claim 90 percent of the settlement proceeds for their own attorneys fees, he noted.
“When Progressive dangled a pot of money, ethical restraints were swept aside. Watson and the PIP lawyers, at Progressive’s insistence, excluded the only attorney sufficiently experienced and knowledgeable to see them through settlement negotiations, and reached a quick and ethically flawed settlement agreement,” Evander said.
The “only attorney” he referred to was Larry Stewart of Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain in Miami.
Stewart and the other bad faith attorneys sued and won their case in Palm Beach Circuit Court in 2008. The judgment was upheld on appeal.
The Florida Bar subsequently investigated Watson, whose firm was assigned $1 million of the judgment. The Bar found probable cause against Watson. She was elected to the bench shortly after its finding in 2012, so her case was forwarded to the JQC regulating judges.