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At a May 1994 seminar in Sarasota, Fla., on workers’ compensation, lawyers from Rissman, Weisberg, Hurt, Donahue & McLain in Orlando, Fla., allegedly described various compensation claims judges and lawyers as racists, alcoholics and incompetents. According to a memorandum that purportedly documented the seminar, one of the Rissman Weisberg lawyers made the following comment about Rand Hoch, then a compensation claims judge in Daytona Beach, Fla.: “Always send a young man in front of Judge Hoch, as he prefers boys in shorts.” After he got hold of the memo, Hoch, an acknowledged homosexual, sued Rissman Weisberg for defamation over what he claimed were the implications — that he was a pedophile, and that his sexual orientation meant he could be influenced by the sex and appearance of those appearing before him. Denied reappointment as a judge in 1996, Hoch now works as a solo lawyer and mediator in West Palm Beach, Fla. An Orange County, Fla., Circuit Court trial judge summarily dismissed the suit. But two years ago, the claims against Rissman Weisberg were reinstated by Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal, and the case was scheduled for trial this week in Orlando. Earlier this month, however, Hoch and his attorney, Jack Scarola, a partner at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley in West Palm Beach, reached a settlement with Rissman Weisberg. Terms of the deal, expected to be finalized this week, were not disclosed. “I am very pleased with the settlement terms,” Scarola says. Hill Ward & Henderson in Tampa, Fla., which represented Rissman Weisberg, did not return calls for comment. With its sensational allegations, the case became the buzz of the Central Florida legal community. Rissman Weisberg is a workers’ compensation defense firm with offices in Orlando, Tampa and Vero Beach, Fla. In the early and mid-’90s, it regularly held gossipy seminars on workers’ comp intended to attract clients. At the sessions, Rissman Weisberg lawyers dished out what they touted as “inside information” about judges and plaintiffs’ lawyers in the workers’ comp field. The attendees generally were insurance claims adjusters, who were promised information that give them an edge in resolving injury claims, including insights about how to size up various judges and lawyers in deciding which cases to settle and which to take to trial. In May 1994, more than 50 employees from Sarasota-based Riscorp Inc. attended a Rissman Weisberg session. Partners Steven Rissman and Theodore Goldstein, along with a few other firm members, spoke during the seminar. According to court papers, Judith Boling, a Riscorp claims adjuster, recorded in her notes the comment that Judge Hoch “likes … men in tight shorts,” though she later could not recall which lawyer made the remark. Boling’s notes indicated that Hoch was also called “very smart” and “rules oriented.” Even though Steven Rissman cautioned attendees that the information provided was to be kept confidential, an unsigned, eight-page memorandum purportedly drawn from the session soon surfaced. It included the comment about Hoch’s supposed preferences. The document also included a slew of derogatory comments about other compensation claims judges and attorneys, for instance: “doesn’t like Haitians,” “bright but very lazy,” “Old Sleepy,” “drinking problem … always talk to [him] before noon,” “doesn’t believe in psychiatrists or psychologists,” “under investigation for illegal activities.” In 1996, Hoch sued Rissman Weisberg in Orange County Circuit Court for slander, libel and conspiracy to defame, requesting unspecified damages. In court filings, Hoch said the defamation had smeared his reputation and contributed to his not being re-appointed as a compensation claims judge. He also claimed mental anguish, humiliation and lost earnings capacity. In their court filings, Rissman Weisberg’s lawyers denied making the defamatory comments, while conceding the possibility they had jokingly referred to the judge’s sexual preferences. Hoch’s lawsuit also included a libel claim against attorney Daniel DeCiccio and his law firm, DeCiccio & Associates in Winter Park, Fla. Hoch alleged that DeCiccio had prepared the anonymous memo from a tape recording he admitted receiving, and then tried to distribute it throughout the local workers’ compensation community. The memo was in fact circulated to numerous judges and lawyers. DeCiccio denied preparing the memo. Orange County Circuit Judge John H. Adams summarily dismissed both claims in January 1998. But in September 1999, a unanimous 5th District Court of Appeal panel overturned the dismissal of the libel claim against Rissman Weisberg, while affirming the summary judgment in favor of DeCiccio. The appeals court remanded the claims against Rissman Weisberg to the trial court. The 5th District panel found there were genuine issues of fact as to whether Rissman Weisberg lawyers had defamed Hoch. And the alleged comment that Hoch liked men in tight shorts constituted libel per se, the panel found, since it implied that he could be improperly influenced. The latter finding meant that Hoch would not be required at trial to show special damages, for example that the alleged defamation prevented him from being reappointed as a compensation claims judge. “It was kind of a behind-the-scenes gossip session, and I think that offended [the appeals court],” says Russell Bohn, a partner at Caruso Burlington Bohn & Compiani in West Palm Beach who argued Hoch’s appeal. Judge Winifred J. Sharp, who wrote the 5th District opinion, addressed two other legal issues. First, the court found that although Riscorp was a Rissman Weisberg client, the law firm could not claim that the seminar communications were protected by attorney-client confidentiality because the seminar did not involve the provision of legal services. “The privilege does not extend to every statement made by a lawyer,” Sharp wrote. “If a statement is about matters unconnected with the business at hand or in general conversation, the matter is not privileged.” In addition, the appellate court found that even though Hoch was a public figure required to meet the “actual malice” standard to prove libel, his allegations met that standard. The court held that Hoch made a sufficient showing that Rissman’s lawyers knew the statements were false and disparaging. Bohn says the appellate court’s strongly worded opinion probably figured in Rissman Weisberg’s decision to settle. The 5th District Court of Appeal “almost decided as a matter of law that there was no defense on the issue of whether what was said was defamatory,” Bohn says. “That would have created an uphill battle for the defense at trial.”

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