Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal Thursday wiped out contempt charges against a Dubai businessman who failed to pay nearly $2 million in legal fees to South Florida and Brazilian attorneys.
In an opinion authored by Judge Thomas Logue, the appellate court reversed orders of contempt and writs of bodily attachment issued against Azzan bin Abdulla Al Ghurair in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
Al Ghurair, a Dubai entrepreneur and heir to a multibillion-dollar fortune, had hired Coral Gables-based litigator Hillary K. Rodriguez, Miami law firm Weil Quaranta — now Weil Snyder Schweikert & Ravindran — and Sao Paulo-based firm Moraes Pitombo Advogados. The attorneys helped him negotiate a settlement in his suit against a Florida family he alleged had failed to repay a $7 million loan.
“Although the settlement had two non-monetary components intended to secure payment —funding an escrow account and granting the lawyers mortgages on the properties in Brazil — the main provision was that Al Ghurair pay the law firms a legal fee in the amount of $1,925,000,” the appellate opinion read.
The settlement clarified the legal fees, and also articulated that Al Ghurair would take custody and assume the upkeep of 10 Sao Paulo villas owned by the defendants in his underlying suit.
Read the settlement:
But the client appeared to renege on the deal.
“When Al Ghurair failed to comply with the terms of the agreement, the law firms began filing motions to compel compliance,” according to the appellate opinion.
The trial court ordered Al Ghurair to pay the firms, as well as to appear in court to justify why he should not be held in contempt for failing to abide by the settlement. Al Ghurair, whose primary residence is in Dubai, requested that he appear by telephone to explain why he had not paid the nearly $2 million legal fees.
After his request was denied and he subsequently failed to appear in court, the trial judge entered a contempt order and a writ of bodily attachment against Al Ghurair on June 13, 2017. A second writ of bodily attachment followed shortly thereafter in August 2017.
According to the appeals court, this was a “reversible error” on the part of the trial court.
Read the appellate opinion:
“The enforcement through contempt of debts not involving support violates Article I, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution, the provision prohibiting imprisonment for debt,” the panel ruled, citing precedent in the 2007 Third District Court of Appeal case Randall v. Randall.
The court’s reversal wipes out the orders of contempt issued in the trial court as well as the writs of bodily attachment.
Rodriguez, one of the attorneys suing to collect on the debt, declined to comment on the ruling. Ronald P. Weil, of Weil Snyder Schweikert & Ravindran, described the ruling as “disappointing.”
“We’re still evaluating what we will do, if anything,” Weil told the Daily Business Review. He added that Al Ghurair had violated other, nonmonetary aspects of the settlement, which on their own would have justified a contempt finding.
“[Al Ghurair] had to fill out a disclosure of his assets, pursuant to a Florida rule that requires a judgment debtor to make a disclosure of their assets in order to further the collection of the debt,” Weil said, adding that Al Ghurair failed to do so.
According to Paul Morris, Al Ghurair’s appellate attorney, it’s difficult for his client to compensate his prior counsel because he never received the reward outlined in the settlement.
Morris told the Daily Business Review that Al Ghurair’s prior counsel included a contingency fee in their retainer agreement that would entitle them to 35 percent of the recovery.
“My client said … ‘I don’t have the villas yet. All I have is a settlement agreement. If and when they’re conveyed to me I’m happy to pay the contingency fee,’ ” Morris said. “To this day my client still does not have the villas.”
In light of the appellate court’s ruling, Morris said he and Al Ghurair are “very pleased” with the outcome.
“My client has always wanted to do what’s right, and … he would be happy to pay the contingency fee out of that recovery,” Morris said. “That never happened and it should never have gotten to the point where he was facing time behind bars. We’re not paying a fee that was never earned.”