The Florida Supreme Court suspended Boca Raton attorney Byron Gregory Petersen for three years after a 91-day suspension was recommended.
The suspension will go into effect Aug. 4, giving Petersen 30 days to “close out his practice and protect the interests of existing clients,” according to the order issued Thursday.
The 29-page ruling cites “extensive rule violations” and ”existing aggravating factors” justifying Petersen’s suspension, after a court-appointed referee found multiple ethics missteps.
Complaints against Petersen first emerged in October 2014, when the bar alleged he violated Florida Bar rules governing attorney fees and false statements, among other issues.
The court-appointed referee, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Catherine M. Brunson, found Petersen guilty and recommended the 91-day suspension and a $7,500 payment to cover the bar’s costs for prosecuting the case.
The Florida Supreme Court, which has the final word on attorney discipline, ordered Petersen to show cause why it should not impose a harsher penalty than the referee recommended.
Petersen was admitted to the bar in 1976. His record shows a public reprimand in 2010 over a case involving “harassment of his former partner, which led to a conviction of stalking and criminal mischief,” according to the referee’s report. He plead guilty to three misdemeanor counts and was sentenced to three years of probation. That sentence required him to enter into counselling, complete a 26-week group therapy anger-management program and undergo psychological evaluation.
The latest case against Petersen stemmed from his work for Robert and Wendy Gielchinsky and their business organizations, which he represented in various legal matters. Three cases in particular were in question.
The first involved the North American Tobacco Import Co., which filed a suit against the North Carolina-based tobacco company Vibo Corp., later rebranded as General Tobacco.
Petersen initially joined the case as co-counsel with an original agreement for a $3,000 monthly retainer plus a percentage of the recovery. When Petersen later became sole counsel, this fee agreement was altered on various occasions.
Litigation went on for several years and eventually led to a disagreement between the Gielchinskys and Petersen over attorney fees.
According to the referee: “Respondent gained a pecuniary interest in the litigation which could be adverse to the Gielchinskys. Respondent failed to advise the Gielchinskys in writing that they could and/or should seek independent legal counsel to review the initial fee agreement or subsequent revisions.”
Testimony from Christina Broder, a former paralegal to Petersen, also suggested he made “an intentional effort to create conflicts of interest with the Gielchinskys,” the report said.
In a second case in 2008, Petersen represented the Aldar Tobacco Group, another Gielchinsky businesses. According to the court filings, Petersen withdrew from the case in July 2011, then filed a notice of charging lien two months later.
A dispute then ensued as to whether Petersen had represented Gielchinsky on a contingency fee basis. On Feb. 7, 2013, the court ruled in favor of the Gielchinskys. It found, “Petersen is demanding payment despite his withdrawal on the eve of trial, but he has presented no credible evidence substantiating the hourly fee agreement he contends is operative.”
The third case in question occured in 2005 when Petersen was paid $6,500 to represent the Gielchinskys against a Broward County company that installed a pool in their home.
According to state Supreme Court, “Petersen filed the Pool People case in March 2005 and conducted some preliminary discovery. However, the referee found that he took little or no significant action in the case thereafter.”
The referee’s ultimate conclusion was that, “By failing to take any significant action on the Pool People case for his clients, respondent failed to competently and diligently represent the Gielchinskys.”
In response to accusations that he failed to move cases forward, Petersen claimed he did so because the clients instructed him not to, preferring that he give certain lawsuits more attention than others.
Adding fuel to the fire, Petersen also failed to promptly respond to investigators’ inquiries during disciplinary proceedings.
He did not not respond requests for comment by press time.
Read the Florida Supreme Court ruling:
Read the court-appointed referee’s report: