X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
As prominent Miami lawyer William Huggett lay dying in the hospital last August, his associate and friend Jay Wingate approached Huggett’s wife, Jacqueline, and asked her to appoint him as the Huggett Law Firm’s inventory attorney. Wingate said “she needed to consent to him as inventory attorney in order to protect her interest in the firm or otherwise the court would appoint a stranger and give the cases to another firm,” Mrs. Huggett says in court papers. Shortly after that, Huggett died of a stroke, at age 65. His widow promptly signed documents making Wingate, 60, the inventory attorney for the thriving maritime firm, which had scores of complex, possibly lucrative cases. Wingate was the firm’s only associate at the time of Huggett’s death. Mrs. Huggett, who has twin 10-year-old sons by Huggett and is serving as the personal representative of her late husband’s estate, is accusing Wingate of manipulating her in her time of grief to get the appointment, then using his dual position as inventory attorney and associate to loot the firm of money and about 100 of the firm’s clients. Mrs. Huggett is now fighting in court to rebuild her husband’s practice, in both the litigation surrounding the inventory attorney appointment and in a lawsuit filed this month. At the center of the fight is the question of where an inventory attorney’s loyalty lies if he or she is also an employee of the firm. The Huggett estate asserts that Wingate had a fiduciary duty to the firm, as its sole associate. Wingate counters that once he was appointed inventory attorney, his duty to the clients superseded any obligation to the firm, allowing him to solicit the Huggett firm’s clients while still employed by the Huggett Firm. Inventory attorneys are appointed by the court when an attorney dies or abandons his clients, leaving no one behind to sort through the cases. Inventory attorneys are responsible for making sure the cases do not fall through the cracks. The law allows them to take on the cases themselves or dole them out to other attorneys. Mrs. Huggett filed an unjust enrichment and breach of duty suit against Wingate in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on Feb. 3. David H. Pollack is representing Mrs. Huggett, who argued in court documents that Wingate’s efforts to snatch clients happened only after his failed negotiations to buy the firm from her. Mrs. Huggett had hoped to maintain the cases at the firm until she found a suitable buyer. But last week, Chief Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Joseph P. Farina Jr. ruled in favor of Wingate in the inventory attorney litigation, denying Mrs. Huggett’s motion to force Wingate to return any clients he solicited from the firm. He found that Wingate’s duties as an associate were superseded by his duties as inventory attorney. As an associate, Wingate would be amiss to solicit away the Huggett Firm’s clientele while still in its employ under Florida law, since he would owe a duty to the firm. However, Farina ruled that the duty owed to the clients outweighed any duty to the firm, and that Wingate had the right to keep Huggett’s cases. In his order, Farina wrote that The Florida Bar has not adequately addressed what constitutes a proper contact letter from an inventory attorney to clients. Farina asked the Bar to address the issue. Mrs. Huggett’s attorney plans to appeal Farina’s decision. CITING ‘ROBLES’ CASE Inventory attorneys are uncommon, and there is little case law governing their duties. However, the high-profile 2003 case involving disbarred attorney Louis S. Robles addressed the issue of whether an inventory attorney could take over cases from the firm he was overseeing, and Judge Farina, who was also the judge in that case, found that it was within the law. Wingate’s attorney, Chris Carver, a shareholder at Akerman Senterfitt in Miami, said in an interview that many of Mrs. Huggett’s claims, including the claim that Wingate and the law firm staff stole money, were “wildly untrue.” He argues that his client did nothing wrong during his nearly four-month tenure as inventory attorney, and that he didn’t even want that job in the first place. Carver said that his client only stepped in as inventory attorney after Anna Scornavacca, a former partner at the Huggett firm, “adamantly refused” to be inventory attorney. Still, Carver doesn’t deny in court filings that Wingate sought to convince Huggett clients to switch to Wingate’s new firm, the Wingate Law Firm, which he established in October, after the failed negotiations with Mrs. Huggett to purchase the Huggett Law Firm. In her unjust enrichment suit, which is separate from the inventory attorney litigation, Jacqueline Huggett seeks to get back the estimated 100 cases Wingate solicited from her late husband’s firm, and also to recover money she claims Wingate improperly took. Mrs. Huggett also alleges breach of duty and tortious interference by Wingate and eight other employees of the Huggett Law Firm. The employees, who joined Wingate’s new firm, are accused of taking money, files and clients from the firm. SPURNED PURCHASE OFFER Inventory attorneys are similar to receivers. They are appointed by the court to protect clients’ interests when an attorney dies or abandons clients. Huggett had a national reputation in the maritime law field. At the time of his death, he was lead attorney in a case before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking to end the Philippine government’s practice of requiring all seamen from the country to arbitrate personal injury claims in the Philippines. Wingate was hired as an associate at the Huggett firm in 2001. He was a friend of the Huggett family and is the godfather of the Huggetts’ sons. The unjust enrichment suit alleges that during Wingate’s tenure as inventory attorney, his first act was to give himself a $25,000 pay raise. It also contends that rather than focusing on the firm’s affairs, Wingate concentrated on trying to buy the firm. But Huggett’s widow did not want to sell it to Wingate, in part because he had only three years’ experience as an attorney and had done very little trial work, according to the lawsuit. When she refused to sell the firm to Wingate, according to the lawsuit, Wingate “engaged in a systematic campaign to loot the Huggett Law Firm of its clients.” In October 2004, Wingate incorporated his own firm, the Wingate Law Firm, and began soliciting Huggett’s clients for his firm. The suit alleges that Wingate used Huggett Law Firm’s stationery, staff and facilities to solicit the clients, taking about 100 of the firm’s cases. Wingate and other office staffers spent roughly $1 million of the law firm’s money without approval — or they gained approval from Jacqueline Huggett through false statements, according to the suit. But Carver denied that. “There’s no substantiation of anyone taking money,” said Carver, who added that Jacqueline Huggett had approved most of the expenditures she is now contesting. On Dec. 20, Mrs. Huggett filed an emergency motion in Miami-Dade Circuit Court to have Wingate removed as inventory attorney. Her motion was granted, and Scornavacca was appointed as the new inventory attorney. Scornavacca then reviewed Wingate’s actions as inventory attorney and found that he had deleted data from the firm’s computer hard drives, misappropriated money, removed all client files and left the office in shambles, according to Mrs. Huggett’s suit. In January, Pollack filed motions and supplementary briefs on Mrs. Huggett’s behalf in an effort to force Wingate to return the client files and cases to Huggett’s estate. Pollack’s motion alleged that Wingate breached his duty to the firm by failing to maintain client files, engaging in unauthorized spending of the firm’s funds, and erasing data from the firm’s computers. TENUOUS CASE LAW In his motion, Pollack relied on out-of-state rulings as well as Florida law to argue that Wingate’s first duty as inventory attorney and associate was to the law firm, and that his systematic campaign to secure the firm’s clients for himself was ethically and legally wrong. The case law that Pollack cited, however, mostly revolved around the related but different issue of attorneys soliciting business from a law firm before leaving it for a new one. In Frates v. Nichols, a 1964 opinion from the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, the court found that a law partner dissolving his firm owed a duty to the firm to wrap up its pending business, and that using the firm’s dissolution for personal benefit was a breach of fiduciary duty. But there were no cases cited by Pollack that address the role of an inventory attorney who is also an associate of the firm. In defense of Wingate’s solicitation of clients, Carver argued that Wingate’s role as inventory attorney and protector of the Huggett clients’ interests trumped any role he might have as an employee of the Huggett Law Firm. In court papers defending Wingate’s right to keep the clients, Carver cited the highly publicized case of Robles, a former Miami class action and mass torts attorney, as precedent for the right of an inventory attorney to take clients from the firm he is overseeing. Robles was disbarred in 2003 after the Bar found that he had misappropriated client funds. Thomas Tew, a partner at Tew Cardenas in Miami, was appointed by Judge Farina as inventory attorney for the Robles firm. Robles challenged Tew’s move to take some of the Robles cases to Tew Cardenas and moved to disqualify Tew as inventory attorney. Judge Farina denied Robles’ motion, ruling that an inventory attorney owes no duty to the attorney for whom he’s taken over, and that there is no restriction on the ability of an inventory attorney to take over cases. But the Huggett estate counters that its case is different because Wingate was both inventory attorney and an employee of the law firm and because Wingate allegedly got the Huggett cases through deception and fraud. Farina did not agree. SOLICITATION RULES Mrs. Huggett had alleged that the letters Wingate sent to solicit clients were improperly drafted and did not give the clients information they needed to make a decision, such as his lack of trial experience and his financial ability to handle the cases. Mrs. Huggett also alleged that the letter erroneously stated that the Huggett firm would have be closed, when she in fact had the option of selling it to another attorney. Farina wrote in his order that the Bar had not properly addressed the issue of an inventory attorney’s solicitation letter, and asked the Bar to adopt a form letter for inventory attorneys seeking to take on clients. In an interview, Tew, who is not involved in the Huggett litigation, said that as long as the clients are properly apprised of their rights, there is nothing wrong with an inventory attorney soliciting clients. “Those decisions are essentially the decision of the client — whether the client decides to stay with the office or not,” Tew said. “The most important thing is what’s in the client’s best interest. The real issue is whether [Wingate] takes the cases and develops them.” Pollack said he plans to appeal Farina’s ruling. That could create appellate law governing the inventory attorney issue. “We feel the law is very clear,” Pollack said, “that an employee and an associate of a law firm owes a duty to that law firm and the employer while they’re in their employ.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.