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Florida Supreme Court officials and prominent appellate lawyers say that contrary to rumor, it’s highly unlikely that a decision on a workers’ compensation case was leaked prior to its official release in June. But the Florida Bar is investigating possible ethics violations in the matter, which was first reported by the St. Petersburg Times last month. And Tallahassee, Fla., lawyer Thom Rumberger, whose firm was suspected of receiving the leak, is threatening to sue the unidentified lawyer whose tip triggered the investigation. No one interviewed for this article could recall any prior allegation of a Supreme Court decision being leaked before its official release. But any such allegation has the potential to hurt the court’s public image, which is why court officials have been prompt in investigating the matter. On July 8, almost a month after Supreme Court Clerk Thomas D. Hall was tipped about the possible leak of the court’s decision in Aguilera v. Inservices, Inspector General Ken Chambers issued a report detailing his investigation. The 4-3 ruling, officially released June 16, held that a workers’ compensation insurance carrier was not immune under statute from being sued in a case of egregious conduct. Hall found that no one at the court released the decision. But he referred the case to the Florida Bar, which began investigating the possibility of lawyer misconduct late last month. The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges or court staff from discussing current or future cases. A redacted version of Chambers’ report provided to the Daily Business Review indicates that Hall received a phone call from an attorney friend about the case on June 7. The friend told him there was a rumor among employment lawyers that the Aguilera decision had been leaked. The implication was that the early release led to the defendants reaching a confidential settlement with the plaintiff for what the tipster called “an obscene amount of money.” The inspector general’s report did not identify the caller. Chambers assessed the possibility of the court’s computer system being hacked and interviewed 48 court employees. He did not question the justices. “We were unable to substantiate the allegation that confidential information regarding the Aguilera case was disclosed to someone outside the Supreme Court,” Chambers concluded. But, he also recommended that the Florida Bar further investigate the matter because the inspector general’s power to investigate only extends to employees of the court. “We have no indication at this point that there was a leak,” said Craig Waters, the high court’s spokesman. “As far as we know at the present time, it is strictly a rumor.” Tony Boggs, the Bar’s director of lawyer regulation, said the Bar’s investigation should conclude within three months. Joshua D. Lerner, an attorney at Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell in Tallahassee who represented the insurance carrier in the Supreme Court case, said “there is not an ounce of truth to the suggestion that we received unauthorized information.” The case involved a warehouse worker, Rodrigo Aguilera, who was hit by a forklift while at work at a Publix Super Markets warehouse in North Miami. Aguilera later sued Publix’s workers’ compensation carrier, Inservices Inc., in Miami-Dade Circuit Court for bad faith, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The carrier argued that it was immune from lawsuits in circuit court under the state workers’ compensation statute. On June 8, one day after Hall received the tip that the ruling had been leaked, Inservices filed a motion to dismiss the case because the parties had reached a settlement. The Supreme Court rejected that motion. In an opinion released on June 16, the court held that Inservices’ egregious conduct in handling was not shielded by the law. Miami appellate attorney Lauri Waldman Ross, who represented Aguilera, said she could not discuss the settlement because it was confidential. John S. Seligman, of Friedman & Friedman in Coral Gables, Fla., represented Aguilera at the trial level. Thom Rumberger of Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell, which handled the Supreme Court case for Inservices, said there had been discussion of a settlement for some time and the settlement was reached only after the parties went through mediation. Those who have experience dealing with the Supreme Court say it fiercely protects the confidentiality of its decision-making process prior to the public release of opinions. “All I know is that I was up there for 12 years [and] I never knew of any other leak,” said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan. Many appellate attorneys echoed those sentiments. “The curtain is drawn tight, and quite properly so,” said Elliot Scherker, a veteran appellate lawyer and shareholder at Greenberg Traurig’s Miami office. “I have no reason to think that curtain has been breached.” “It just does not happen,” said appellate lawyer Shannon McLin Carlyle of the Carlyle Appellate Group in The Villages, Fla. “I think this is a very rare occurrence, and that’s why the court is taking it so seriously.” Still, Supreme Court spokesman Waters said the allegation was so serious the justices decided to “err on the side of caution” and investigate. In his investigation, Inspector General Chambers interviewed judicial assistants, law clerks and court employees who worked with the court’s computer systems. Most reported being unfamiliar or vaguely familiar with the case. Chambers also reviewed e-mails between a current Supreme Court judicial assistant and an ex-court employee who now works at the Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell office in Orlando, Fla. But the judicial assistant claimed she never discussed the Aguilera case with the former employee. Other court staff who knew the former employee said they had not communicated with her for some time. “Only a few employees acknowledged they knew enough details of the case to provide the information that was allegedly disclosed to someone outside the Court,” Chambers wrote. Only a few Supreme Court employees acknowledged knowing lawyers involved in the case. Clerk Thomas Hall said he considered some of the attorneys as friends, but never discussed the Aguilera case with them. Court computer experts also reviewed the computer systems and found they had not been hacked. Rumberger said an internal investigation of his firm has been completed and no evidence of any employee wrongdoing has been found. He expressed anger over the inspector general’s conclusion that if there was a leak, his firm was “most likely” the recipient of the information. He said he welcomes an investigation by the Bar and reiterated that they would find his office did nothing wrong. “We’re saying that there was no leak, and based upon that we have no problem with a full-fledged, all-American investigation,” Rumberger said. Rumberger also said he will ask the Supreme Court for the name of the anonymous caller who tipped off the clerk’s office, and that he’s considering filing a lawsuit against that person. Waldman Ross, Aguilera’s attorney, said she could not speculate on whether a leak actually occurred. She said she’s frustrated with the focus on the possible leak because it has overshadowed her victory in the case. Shannon McLin Carlyle, who was not involved in the case, said she thinks the “coincidence” of the settlement just prior to the release of the ruling led to the investigation. She believes a leak is highly unlikely. “The law clerks and the justices take that duty [to protect confidentiality] very seriously,” she said. Still, she worries that the mere allegation of impropriety could tarnish the court’s image. “It has a chilling effect on the manner on which the public views the court,” she said Former Justice Kogan said picking the right staff is key to keeping court information confidential. “Basically you have to have to rely on the honesty and integrity of the people working at the Supreme Court,” he said.

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