Taking on a family feud, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal reversed a $14 million judgment obtained by a Miami Beach businessman against his brother and nephew.
Leon and Enrique Kopel are brothers from the Dominican Republic who, at their father Scharja Kopel’s request, agreed to buy out his interest in their father’s Dominican-based textile company and other business interests.
According to the DCA opinion, Leon Kopel in 1991 obtained a $5 million loan and Enrique got a $10 million loan. They pooled the funds and paid their father almost $8.9 million. The remainder went into offshore ventures the brothers created — the British Virgin Islands-based Nautilus Holdings Ltd. and the Netherlands Antilles-based Eminence Corp.
By 1992, the brothers’ relationship had deteriorated, the opinion says. Leon Kopel demanded a $5 million payment from his brother and almost $2.3 million from Enrique Kopel’s son, Bernardo. Leon Kopel had invested in the nephew’s commercial real estate business in South Florida. Both demands were denied, and Leon sued in 1994.
Pretrial litigation dragged on for 14 years as Leon Kopel kept amending the complaint, sometimes making contradictory claims.
The case went to trial in 2008 on an unjust enrichment claim. Third District Judge Ivan Fernandez noted in last week’s opinion that Leon claimed for the first time at trial that what had been previously described as settlement discussions with his brother actually were oral agreements to pay the $5 million in exchange for Leon Kopel’s release of all his interests.
The first trial ended in a hung jury. A retrial took place in 2010 when Leon Kopel again relied on the purported oral agreement. He got a verdict in his favor and a final judgment of $5 million plus prejudgment interest of $9.1 million.
Fernandez concluded the court abused its discretion, ruling the claim of an oral agreement did not relate back to the original pleading and was first asserted 10 years after the four-year statute of limitations expired.
Fernandez also found there was no unjust enrichment, which requires conferring a benefit. Evidence indicated some of Leon Kopel’s funds were used to fund legal entities, not individuals.
"Leon admitted he paid his father $2,917,200 of the $5 million. Bernardo and Enrique did not receive this benefit. Leon further admitted he paid $1,794,999 into two foreign corporations in which he held a one-third interest. Enrique held the remaining two-thirds interest in these corporations, while Bernardo had nothing to do with them at all," Fernandez stated.
The court remanded the case to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jerald Bagley with instructions to issue a judgment in favor of Enrique and Bernardo Kopel "because the evidence does not support Leon’s claims."
Judge Angel Cortinas and Senior Judge Alan Schwartz concurred.
Scott Jay Feder, the Coral Gables, Fla., attorney representing Enrique Kopel and his son, said he took over the case in 2008 after the previous defense attorney died.
"On behalf of my clients, I’m very pleased the appellate court has enforced the letter of civil law as applied to the unfortunate facts and circumstances of this family dispute," he said.
Leon Kopel’s attorney, Lawrence S. Gordon at Conroy, Simberg, Ganon, Krevans, Abel, Lurvey, Morrow & Schefer in Hollywood, Fla., did not respond to a request for comment.