Allegations are swirling in a messy law firm breakup.
The fight is so contentious, the plaintiff brought 30 witnesses to an April 12 evidentiary hearing in which both sides sought injunctions.
The plaintiff claims personal injury attorney Thomas Schmitt left a trail of law firm victims from South Florida to Orlando, and took millions of dollars worth of case files each time he left a job. Among the firms named in court pleadings: Steinger Iscoe & Greene, the Law Firm of Goldstein Schmitt & Associates, and Kogan Disalvo & Schmitt.
One former partner, Lauri Goldstein, sued Schmitt, claiming she lost 140 to 170 files when he abruptly left her firm to open a Martin County office for Kogan DiSalvo & Schmitt.
Kogan DiSalvo principals Darryl B. Kogan and Theodore L. DiSalvo did not comment on the latest suit. But when Goldstein battled Schmitt in 2015, she pulled Kogan DiSalvo into the litigation, claiming the firm benefited from her former partner’s alleged wrongdoing.
The parties reached a confidential settlement in that case.
But Schmitt alleges Goldstein targeted him for years, pursued him across Florida, and filed lawsuits to force him into bankruptcy.
“When I leave a firm, a lot of clients come with me,” he said.
Schmitt faces suit from a new plaintiff, but suggests a connection between Goldstein and the new litigant: a West Palm Beach attorney, Michael Pike, who’s represented both plaintiffs in lawsuits against him.
Now, Schmitt says he’s gearing to seek sanctions against his latest plaintiff and Pike for allegedly filing a frivolous motion.
“Pike is doing the same unethical things that he did in the last lawsuit,” Schmitt said. “He files pleadings with scandalous allegations that violate the Rules of Civil Procedure. He attaches documents to pleadings that violate the Rules of Civil Procedure.”
Pike and partner Talina Bidwell represent Schmitt’s former employer-turned-opponent, personal injury lawyer Johnny Pineyro, whose company brought the suit. In 2015, he was plaintiff counsel when Goldstein sued Schmitt, DiSalvo and Kogan.
Pike’s current client, Pineyro, heads Florida Injury Law Firm P.A. in Celebration, near Kissimmee.
The firm sued Schmitt and his startup, Personal Injury Law Team LLC. It also named Matthew D. Valdes, a former Florida Injury Law Firm attorney who left to work with Schmitt, as a defendant. Valdes did not respond to requests for comment.
Schmitt worked for Florida Injury Law Firm for about nine months from April 2017 as a personal injury attorney. But at his request, he and the firm restructured their agreement to make him an independent contractor.
The plaintiff suggests the move was a ruse.
“Schmitt used the Florida Injury Law Firm as a staging grounds to gain immediate access to approximately 200 clients, establish contact with those clients and then ‘pounce’ when the time was right, in an effort to steal each and every client,” according to the complaint filed March 9 in Orange Circuit Court.
The litigants met for an April 12 injunction hearing before Orange Circuit Judge Julie H. O’Kane in Orlando. They disputed several issues, including communication with clients and ownership of a trust account.
Pike argued Schmitt misrepresented himself to Florida Injury Law Firm’s clients. He alleged the attorney sent a letter incorrectly describing himself as the firm’s managing member to make clients think a principal was leaving the firm to start another venture.
The correspondence should have been a joint letter from Schmitt and the firm to inform clients of the departure, and notify them of their options to leave with the attorney, remain with the firm, or seek other representation.
But instead, Schmitt used Pineyro’s electronic signature on the document without telling the other attorney or showing him the document. He said the independent contractor agreement allowed him to send the document.
“I have had experience in the past where employers have refused to send the joint letters,” Schmitt told O’Kane, according to a copy of the court transcript.
“I don’t care about that,” the judge interjected.
“That’s the reason why it was sent that way,” Schmitt said.
The judge seemed unconvinced and ordered the parties to send clients a new letter. Pineyro must authorize the document and his firm must be responsible for getting the correspondence to clients.
“And the letter is to bear actual signatures, as opposed to electronic signatures, of both Mr. Pineyro and Mr. Schmitt,” O’Kane ruled.
Pike will likely use that exchange to fend off any motion for sanctions.
“How in the world can Mr. Schmitt claim I’m unethical when he admitted in open court to using Mr. Pineyro’s signature without authorization?” he told the Daily Business Review.
The judge ordered the litigants to enter mediation by April 30 and to return May 21 for a pretrial conference.