The Fourth District Court of Appeal Wednesday reinstated a temporary injunction and asset freeze against six people and eight businesses that the Office of Florida’s Attorney General alleged fraudulently collected millions in upfront legal fees from delinquent home loan borrowers.
Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed the original complaint under the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act in 2015, alleging the defendants teamed with disbarred lawyers to form a fake law firm that ultimately sent consumers further into debt.
But Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer Robyn Lynn Sztyndor of RLS Law paints a radically different picture, alleging the state’s claims stem from financial interest rather than fact.
The plaintiff seeks equitable restitution, aimed at clawing back any unjust gains of defendants, but, in Sztyndor’s view, the complaint unofficially asks for legal restitution — monetary damages based on liability. Sztyndor claims that’s because the state can collect equitable remedies, whereas legal restitution damages have to go back to the consumer.
“The State of Florida has been mislabeling legal remedies as equitable remedies to steal them, and that’s outrageous in my opinion,” Sztyndor said.
The complaint claims nonlawyers Joseph Bilotti, Ralph Consiglio and disbarred attorney Laura L. Hess ran a fraudulent 2009 enterprise under various names, including the Home Defense Law Firm and Nationwide Foreclosure Defense.
They allegedly promised to reduce debt, restore damaged credit and halt or delay foreclosures, and worked with Boca Raton law firm William Berger & Associates P.A., owned by attorney Charles William Berger, who’s since died.
“Often, no attorney from the enterprise ever even shows up for the scheduled trial or other hearings related to the clients’ foreclosure hearing,” the complaint said.
The defendants deny the allegations.
The office of current Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody welcomed the appellate court’s decision.
“We are pleased with the court’s clarification and ruling,” press secretary Kylie Mason said in a statement. “The Attorney General is charged with protecting Florida’s consumers and the ruling ensures the Attorney General’s Office has the tools necessary to accomplish this important mission.”
The defendants deny the allegations, and their lawyer, Sztyndor, disagrees with the ruling, arguing that the court didn’t have all the facts.
The move reverses a Palm Beach Circuit ruling lifting the temporary injunction and asset freeze after finding that the AG couldn’t bring an injunction without pleading “actual damages.”
The Fourth DCA disagreed, ruling that the AG’s allegations were enough.
Read the full court opinion:
Fourth DCA Judge Alan O. Forst wrote the opinion, backed by Judges Dorian K. Damoorgian and Cory J. Ciklin.
Sztyndor will move for rehearing and hopes the case will reach the Florida Supreme Court. She disputes the state’s version of events.
“They’re saying that all of these licensed attorneys basically didn’t supervise their staff, and they’re turning that into, ‘They were frontmen for this fake law firm,’ ” she said. “ How do you have a fake law firm when half of the defendants are licensed attorneys in good standing? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Three of the six named defendants — Gary Robillard, Timothy Healy and Rahim West — are licensed attorneys in good standing with the Florida Bar, according to its website.
Robillard and Healy did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but West denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of alleged misdeeds.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with me,” he said. “I’ve spoken to the AG and, as far as I know and as far as I’m concerned, this is between the Bilottis, his entities and the AG.”
Berger was in good standing with the bar at the time, but was disbarred in his elderly years over a mental competency issue.
“Sometimes we get lost in these stories of deceptive schemes,” Sztyndor said. ”I used to be of the opinion that if the State of Florida came after you, you must have done something wrong. That is the furthest from the truth that I’ve ever seen in these civil cases because there is a financial incentive.”