Adorno & Yoss founding partner Henry Adorno violated professional rules by orchestrating a $7 million class action settlement that benefited only seven people rather than all Miami taxpayers, a judge ruled Friday in a disciplinary case brought by the Florida Bar.
Broward Circuit Judge Jack Tuter, as referee in the ethics case, ruled Adorno breached his duty to the proposed class and accepted an excessive attorney fee of $2 million for his work on the settlement, which was thrown out when its limitations were uncovered.
Tuter sided with Adorno on another count, ruling he could not conclude from a brief transcript that the attorney intentionally misled Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Peter Lopez into approving the settlement in a suit challenging an unconstitutional city fire fee.
But Tuter concluded, "No rational person could explain how seven individual plaintiffs ... could end up dividing $5 million in settlement proceeds and their attorneys $2 million."
Tuter ordered both sides to confer on sanctions. If there's no agreement, a trial on the issue would begin Tuesday, and the judge will recommend punishment to the Florida Supreme Court.
The disputed settlement with payments to only seven people "under the facts of this case was prejudicial, illogical and unexplainable," the judge wrote in his 11-page summary judgment order. "Can the referee say with 'precise explicit, lacking in confusion and of such weight that it produces a firm belief or conviction, without hesitation about the matter' that respondent Adorno misled Judge Lopez and was less than forthright in the hearing? The answer is no."
Tuter also ruled The Bar did not meet its burden of proof against former Miami Assistant City Attorney Charles Mays, who was accused of being less than candid with Lopez for failing to speak up when Adorno outlined the settlement.
"The referee cannot say without hesitation that Mays' silence constituted a violation of the disciplinary rules," Tuter wrote, effectively closing the case against him.
A call to Adorno & Yoss requesting comment from Adorno was not returned by deadline.
Adorno's attorney, Bruce Rogow of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he is pleased Tuter dismissed the lack of candor charges, but wished the judge would have realized that Adorno's actions were beneficial to the class.
"That confirmed our view of those charges and is consistent with our position that Mr. Adorno did not mislead anyone," said Rogow, special counsel with Alters Boldt Brown Rash Culmo in Fort Lauderdale. He argued Lopez should have known Adorno was not representing all taxpayers since the class was never certified.
In an interview, Mays said his reaction to the news "goes beyond elation."
"It strengthens my belief in the system of justice," said Mays, general counsel to Miami's civilian investigative panel. The situation was "incredibly embarrassing" and "downright humiliating."
"You start to see something long enough and read something in the newspaper long enough, you might start to believe some of that nonsense," Mays said. He said he depended on a key group of friends and colleagues to keep himself positive.
Mays' attorney, George F. Knox Jr. of KnoxSeaton in Miami, said his client is gratified that Tuter found the Bar didn't have a case against him.
Mays "is extremely happy and vindicated because this was a very significant challenge to his well-established stature, reputation and integrity in the legal community," Knox said. He argued his client couldn't have clarified the settlement or appeased Lopez's concerns because he didn't know they existed.
The Florida Bar declines to comment on open cases.
Citizens filed a constitutional challenge over the fire fee imposed by the cash-strapped city in 1998. In 2004, Adorno and the city negotiated the settlement, which omitted refunds to thousands of taxpayers.
Lopez tossed the settlement in 2006, and the 3rd District Court of Appeal railed against fraud in its opinion on the case.
"More unethical and reprehensible behavior by attorneys against their own clients is difficult to imagine," 3rd DCA Judge Angel Cortinas wrote in his 2007 opinion.
In 2008, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jose Rodriguez approved a $15.5 million settlement to pay refunds to up to 53,000 property owners.
When examining the work of attorneys involved in the ejected settlement, the Bar found no probable cause against then-Mayor Manny Diaz and former City Attorney Jorge Fernandez.
Tuter heard the issue Wednesday on motions for summary judgment filed by the Bar, Adorno and Mays. His order noted there was no dispute over material facts, leaving him to determine questions of law.
He noted a conflict in the law concerning "what fiduciary duty is owed to an undetermined or putative class by lead counsel."
Adorno's attorney argued he owed no duty to class members not covered by the stricken settlement. The judge noted the Bar asked Adorno during a deposition about a $35 million demand in mediation to settle the case. Tuter said. Bar counsel asked Adorno if "you were representing the interests of the entire class. His answer was, 'No question about that.'"
Adorno & Yoss is the nation's largest minority-owned law firm with nearly 300 lawyers at the Coral Gables, Fla.-based firm founded in 1986.