Holland & Knight allegedly violated three professional conduct rules, according to a motion filed last week to disqualify the firm from representing one of the nation’s largest financial institutions in cases related to the estate of a deceased Coral Gables man.
Lawyers for Lisa Ramos, the daughter and personal representative of Louis O. Gonzalez’s estate, has filed the motion to disqualify Holland & Knight from representing Wilmington Trust, arguing the firm simultaneously represented adverse parties, communicated with Ramos concerning the litigation without appropriate disclosure and then used the information to file a petition to seize the proceeds of the sale.
Lawyers for Lisa Ramos argue Wilmington Trust’s claim against her late father’s homestead seeks to deprive her from her share of the estate and her father’s home, which passed through a revocable trust. Holland & Knight is counsel for Wilmington Trust in cases against the estate, Ramos and her two beneficiary sisters.
Patrick Emans, a Holland & Knight senior associate, worked on behalf of Wilmington Trust from November 2015 to February 2016 in supporting its claim against Ramos in probate court and a federal case. In January 2016, another Holland & Knight attorney took Ramos and her husband, Andy Ramos, to a Miami Heat game and dinner to solicit legal work, and later signed an engagement letter with Ramos’ company, SYMX Healthcare Corp.
At the dinner, they discussed the fact that Lisa Ramos was dealing with her parents’ estates and that they may need to update their own estate planning. A conference call with Emans was arranged. They spoke the day after Ramos had closed on the $3 million sale of her father’s Coral Gables homestead.
Emans interviewed Ramos and learned about her personal assets, including her home title and the protection of money she was expecting to receive from her father’s estate, trust and home sale. But Emans didn’t tell Ramos he was representing Wilmington Trust in the cases against her, that he was going to be seeking a judgment on the assets Ramos was telling him about, or that she should get her own counsel, according to the court document.
Emans sent Ramos and her husband a questionnaire for more information, the motion said. Later, Emans filed a petition on behalf of Wilmington Trust to determine “non-homestead status of real property” and that the proceeds from the homestead shouldn’t pass through the trust but be forfeited to the estate to pay the attorneys’ fees incurred by Holland & Knight in suing Ramos.
Another Holland & Knight attorney, Scott Ponce, began in January 2016 to work on a summary judgment to be filed against Lisa Ramos. While that was pending, the firm asked Ponce to represent Andy Ramos in unrelated litigation. Ramos spent days informing Ponce about his matters, said Jeff Gutchess, a founding partner of full-service boutique AXS Law in Wynwood, who leads the trial and litigation teams.
“Holland & Knight is actively representing adverse parties in ongoing litigation by representing Mr. Ramos and his company, SYMX, while suing Mr. Ramos’s wife, Lisa Ramos, in her individual capacity seeking to deprive her of her inheritance,” according to the motion to disqualify.
Holland & Knight argues otherwise.
“The simple fact is there is no conflict of interest between our representation of Symx Healthcare Corporation in a contract dispute while simultaneously representing a creditor in an unrelated matter where one of the defendants in the matter was the wife of a shareholder of Symx,” Holland & Knight said in a written statement. “Additionally, the claim that we learned confidential information is erroneous. Over a year ago there was a preliminary discussion about the possible engagement of the firm in connection with estate planning for Mr. and Ms. Ramos. That engagement was declined by the firm due to a potential conflict. That potential conflict was, or at least should have been, well known to the Mr. and Ms. Ramos because the litigation for which they seek to disqualify Holland & Knight had already been pending for over five months.”
In the motion to disqualify, the Ramoses said they discovered the representation conflict in May when Lisa Ramos went to court regarding the Wilmington Trust case legal fees and Emans and Scott Ponce were opposing counsel. She realized it was the same Emans who spoke to her on the phone, and when she told her husband she had been cross-examined by Ponce, he realized it was the same lawyer representing his company in unrelated litigation, said Gutchess, Ramos’ attorney.
“He’s still on the case,” Gutchess said, refering to Emans. “Hopefully we’ll get some discovery to show whether this was intentional or just reckless.”
The original issue with Wilmington Trust is that lawyers for the estate wrote to the John Hancock Insurance Co., among others, to inform them it might have an interest in an existing insurance policy on the life of her father. Wilmington claims that it is the lawful beneficiary of the insurance policy and claims interest and attorney fees of more than $1 million because Gonzalez’s estate has not withdrawn the letter. In November, the court found in favor of Wilmington Trust on its contract claim and shortly thereafter, John Hancock paid $10 million in insurance proceeds, plus interest, to Wilmington Trust, according to the document.
The motion also states the firm is also charging Ramos’ husband $100 per hour more than it is charging Wilmington Trust to sue Lisa Ramos and recover her personal assets.
“If you’re the client and you find out they are charging you $100 more an hour than someone who is suing your wife, you’re going to be upset regardless whether it’s a volume discount or not,” Gutchess said.
In addition to the request to disqualify Holland & Knight from representing Wilmington, the motion also requests the court stay the proceedings until the matter is resolved, strike pleadings for Wilmington Trust and grant Ramos further relief the court deems proper.
A federal court in New York disqualified Holland & Knight for similar violations of simultaneously representing adverse parties in April in a lawsuit between First NBC Bank and ethanol distributor Murex LLC.