Michael Tein and Guy Lewis (AM Holt)
For the second time in 1½ months, a South Florida judge has dealt the Miccosukee Indian tribe a blow in a war against its former lawyers at Miami law firm Lewis Tein.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Thornton, in a 14-page order, granted a motion for summary judgment in a fraud and malpractice lawsuit filed against law partners Guy Lewis and Michael Tein. Lewis is a former interim U.S. attorney, and Tein is a former federal prosecutor.
Thornton echoed U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke’s findings last month that the lawsuit had no place in state court and was an internal dispute ripe for tribal resolution.
But Thornton went further, slamming the tribe in finding the fraud, racketeering and malpractice counts were without merit even if he had jurisdiction. “The record is utterly devoid of any evidence of criminal intent or intentional misconduct,” he wrote in the order handed down Sunday.
Motions for sanctions against the tribe and its lead attorney, Bernardo Roman III of Miami, are before Cooke and Thornton.
Lewis Tein contended in pleadings Roman has filed frivolous lawsuits to drain the firm’s financial resources as part of a vendetta by tribal chairman Colley Billie against former chairman Billy Cypress and the lawyers he hired while in charge. Roman, according to a deposition of another tribal leader, William Osceola, is paid at least $250,000 a month from the tribe.
The small tribe, which operates a casino resort west of Miami and has four reservations in and around the Everglades, accused Lewis Tein of helping Cypress siphon off $26 million. The tribe also said Lewis Tein billed for work never done and kicked back some of the money to Cypress.
“Judge Thornton’s detailed and careful analysis completely exonerates Guy and Mike of the scurrilous and false allegations levied by the tribe,” said attorney Paul Calli, a Miami partner at Carlton Fields who represents Lewis Tein. “Guy and Mike are grateful that the truth has finally prevailed.”
Roman could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Thornton found no fraud, no misconduct, no fraudulent billing and no malpractice.
“After nearly three years of litigation, dozens of depositions, thousands of pages of documents, Judge Thornton concluded that the tribe’s complaint had no basis in fact whatsoever,” Calli said. Associates Yolanda Strader and Chas Short assisted Calli with the case.
Despite rejecting the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, Thornton reviewed the complaint count by count.
He noted the tribe changed its argument on Lewis Tein’s bills from an allegation of pure fraud to a claim the charges were “unreasonable.” A review of the invoices found no “genuine issue of material fact,” said Thornton, dispensing with allegations of malpractice, racketeering and fraud.
“Not a single piece of evidence reveals, and no witness testified, that any work was done maliciously or simply not done,” the judge wrote.
He also said the tribe’s own records and officers thoroughly undermined the lawsuit. Officials said they knew of no fraud by Lewis Tein, and financial records show all invoices were submitted and approved.
Miami defense attorney William Barzee, a partner with Barzee Flores, who has supported Lewis Tein’s position, called the ruling “total victory” for the firm.
“It was definitely scathing,” Barzee said.
He also said the slash-and-burn litigation opens the tribe to sanctions.
“I would not be sleeping well if I were the tribe’s attorneys,” Barzee said.
After Cooke’s dismissal, the tribe last month filed a third lawsuit against Lewis Tein and others in state court that reiterated the same allegations but with different counts. The lawsuit, which is expected to be transferred to Thornton, also names attorney Dexter Lehtinen, another former U.S. attorney who spearheaded Everglades litigation on behalf of the tribe for years.
Lehtinen is now a partner with Tew Cardenas in Miami.