When disbarred lawyer Scott Rovenger was sentenced to eight years in prison for stealing more than $1 million from his clients, one of them expressed forgiveness.
“I want nothing ill to befall him,” Phillip Bradford told the Sun Sentinel after Rovenger’s 2012 sentencing. “I want him to come out and make a positive impact on society.”
FLORIDA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA, APPELLANT, V. PHILLIP BRADFORD, APPELLEE
Case no.: 4D13-376
Date: July 23, 2014
Case type: Negligence, attorney fraud
Court: Fourth District Court of Appeal
Author of opinion: Chief Judge Dorian K. Damoorgian
Lawyers for petitioner: Anne Sullivan Magnelli, Kathryn L. Smith and Kristen A. Tajak, Cole, Scott & Kissane, Miami
Lawyer for respondent: William G. Wolk, Eaton & Wolk, Miami
Panel: Damoorgian and Judges Martha C. Warner and Mark W. Klingensmith
Originating court: Broward Circuit Court
At least some of Bradford’s compassion flowed from Rovenger’s confessing in writing that he’d settled Bradford’s personal injury case secretly. Rovenger also admitted forging Bradford’s signature on a $280,000 settlement check before pocketing the money.
It’s understandable if Bradford is feeling less sympathetic toward Rovenger. The confession isn’t quite the magic bullet Bradford hoped for.
On July 23 the Fourth District Court of Appeal prolonged a dispute over the settlement’s validity by reversing the trial judge and remanding the case to Broward Circuit Court.
A new trial judge must “make specific findings as to which party bears the burden of Rovenger’s fraud,” Chief Judge Dorian Damoorgian wrote.
That would be either Bradford or the bankrupt Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, owner of the property where Bradford was injured. Inmate Rovenger of South Bay Correctional Facility isn’t in the running.
To make the burden-bearing determination, the judge will consider five factors including whether Bradford “ratified the fraud” and “demonstrated due diligence” in hiring Rovenger.
“Due diligence makes the least sense to me. Where’d that come from?” asked Jose Negroni, a Plantation personal injury lawyer who represents Bradford in his negligence suit.
“Isn’t the fact that an attorney is licensed, isn’t that enough?”
William Wolk, Bradford’s Miami appellate attorney, said he’s thinking about asking the Fourth District for a rehearing.
He said the trial court record addresses all the relevant factors “and shows Mr. Bradford was completely innocent. We’re hoping they’ll save us from another appeal.”
Bradford, the fitness director for Cooper City’s Parks and Recreation Department, liked attending auctions. On Jan. 23, 2004, he went to the Philharmonic’s rehearsal hall in Fort Lauderdale, where the bankrupt orchestra company was selling off its assets.
He bought something and went to pick it up at the loading dock. What happened next is disputed, but Bradford alleges he tripped over a carelessly placed tarp and fell from the dock to the ground, a 4-foot drop.
A serious knee injury left him unable to work.
Unfortunately Bradford hired Fort Lauderdale personal injury lawyer Scott Rovenger to represent him in his civil suit against the Philharmonic, Robert Williams Moving & Storage and Fisher Auction Co. Rovenger had been admitted to practice in 1978 and was still in good standing with the Florida Bar 26 years later.
Unbeknownst to Bradford, he was also a cut-rate version of the more notorious Scott R.
According to the Florida Bar’s 2009 complaint against disbarred attorney Gregory Monaldi, Rovenger and Monaldi practiced separately but together ran a rogue referral operation for many years.
Monaldi would send clients to Rovenger—without bothering to obtain their consent—Rovenger would settle the cases, and they’d split the fees 50-50.
This joint venture in which lawyers from different firms shared fees without assuring clients they were providing proportionate services violated numerous ethics rules cited in the Bar complaint.
When Rovenger balked at the deal memorialized only by an oral contract, Monaldi sued him. His Exhibit A listed 98 case names with referral fees due and owing.
Rovenger’s response: Monaldi had nothing in writing.
The scam that brought down Rovenger surfaced during a Florida Bar investigation in 2012.
For 20 years he stole money from clients and even close friends through bogus settlements he concealed under a crazy quilt of lies. He drained trust funds as if they were his personal accounts.
Among the most egregious cases was that of Weston hockey coach Robert Kenny, who died in a car accident in 2010. Kenny and Rovenger had been friends for a decade.
Kenny’s widow, Janelle Kenny, hired Rovenger to file a wrongful death lawsuit, secure a life insurance settlement and oversee charitable contributions to the bereft family.
Within two months of Kenny’s death, Rovenger stole almost all of the $100,000 that had been donated to the couple’s three young children, according to the Sun Sentinel.
After he was disbarred, Rovenger turned himself in to law enforcement authorities and confessed to using client money to quench his addictions to gambling, sex and an extravagant lifestyle.
“I got caught up in something I couldn’t control,” he told Broward Circuit Judge Lisa Porter at his sentencing hearing, the newspaper reported.
He pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed not only to pay restitution, but to help his victims get their money back.
The judge said Rovenger, now in his early 60s, had better participate enthusiastically or his prison stay would stretch from eight to 30 years.
He certainly tried to help Bradford, traveling from south Dade to Broward Circuit Court to testify about his misdeeds.
“He confirmed that Bradford was completely in the dark, so none of that was contested,” Wolk said.
On what happened to be his last day before retiring, Judge Robert Rosenberg signed a bare-bones order nullifying the settlement and returning the case to the trial calendar.
The judge reserved ruling on the philharmonic’s request for a set-aside of the $280,000 it had already paid, the money Rovenger grabbed. That request remains in play, compounding the irony of the situation.
“The philharmonic has the absolute right to sue Rovenger to get their money back,” Wolk said.
“What you’re really seeing here is that Bradford can’t even sue his lawyer because the lawyer didn’t steal the money from him, but from the philharmonic.”