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A Miami attorney who sent holiday cards to the referee presiding over his disciplinary case and offered disgruntled clients refunds if they retracted their complaints from the Florida Bar was suspended Thursday for 91 days. Alberto Batista, a solo practitioner admitted to the Bar in 1988, was suspended by the Florida Supreme Court for failing to communicate with three clients in their separate legal matters between 1997 and 2000. As a condition of his suspension, Batista must undergo psychological counseling and prove to the Bar that he has been rehabilitated before his license is reinstated. According to the Florida Supreme Court order, Batista failed to perform work he was hired to perform for clients who sought his help in matters ranging from getting Social Security benefits for a minor child to having a driver’s license reinstated for a client who had four DUI convictions. In each case, the clients paid Batista $2,000 to $4,000 for his services, but never got the promised results. In October 2000, the Florida Bar filed a three-count complaint against Batista charging him with being incompetent and with failing to exercise diligence and proper communication with his clients. In November 2000, the case was assigned to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bernard Shapiro, who acted as the bar referee. Shortly after he was assigned, Judge Shapiro reported receiving both a Christmas and a Hanukkah card from Batista, a gesture Shapiro found “unusual” but “chose not to read anything into.” During the disciplinary hearings in April 2001, the complaining clients testified that two days prior to the trial, Batista had sent a private investigator to their homes offering to refund their legal fees if they signed affidavits saying they had been satisfied with his services. Two of them took the refunds but did not sign the affidavits. The other client did not take the refund. During the proceedings, Batista, who represented himself, claimed he was only trying to settle the litigation by making restitution. He also said he was unable to handle his clients’ cases efficiently because they neglected to give him appropriate paperwork. Batista also attacked the Florida Bar counsel, claiming their prosecution was motivated by a bias against Hispanic attorneys. “Mr. Batista tends to blame his problems on everyone but himself,” Judge Shapiro wrote in his referee report, issued in July 2002. Shapiro recommended that Batista be suspended for two years. Batista appealed Shapiro’s recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, claiming the judge improperly included the witness-tampering allegations in his decision. Batista claimed Judge Shapiro was barred from considering the allegations because they were not part of the Florida Bar’s original complaint. In its decision, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with Batista, but said the record reflected that Shapiro had viewed the witness-tampering allegations not as new charges, but as aggravating factors in reaching his decision. The high court said Shapiro’s consideration was appropriate, but ruled the two-year suspension was too severe when compared with dispositions in other similar Florida Bar disciplinary cases. The Florida Supreme Court also ordered Batista to pay $2,000 restitution to the client who did not accept the refund and $2,045 for the Bar’s prosecution costs.

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