The Florida Bar should pay about $143,000 to attorney Jeremy Alters after it ”stridently pursued the wrong lawyer” for five years in a discipline case, a court-appointed referee wrote in scathing a report filed Thursday.
The referee, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marcia Caballero, found Alters not guilty on four of the most serious misconduct and fraud charges last November after a trial on the bar’s claims that Alters misappropriated trust account funds. She recommended no sanctions.
The Florida Bar then sought more than $305,000 in prosecution costs from Alters, who was found guilty of two charges for failure to prevent the recurrence of problems created by others.
Caballero found the bar’s requested costs were unnecessary and excessive given Alters prevailed on the important points of the case. The Dania Beach lawyer never disputed that $1 million was missing from his former firm’s trust accounts in 2009 and 2010.
“The essence of this case was never a dispute over how much was improperly transferred from trust to operating, but over who was responsible,” Caballero wrote. “The bar ignored evidence that was front and center and refused to believe or even interview credible witnesses.”
The Florida Bar showed “a remarkable and disturbing imbalance in its investigation” between Alters and Kimberly Boldt, who was managing partner of Alters Boldt Brown Rash & Culmo at the time, the referee wrote.
According to Alters, in 2010 Boldt told him and the firm’s lawyer, Bruce Rogow, that she made a mistake. A former partner at the firm told Boldt he was wiring the firm $1 million attained from a settlement, and she instructed the firm’s then-comptroller to pay the bills without realizing the funds hadn’t come in, according to Alters’ and Rogow’s recollection of the conversation.
Boldt testified she had no role in the firm’s financial decisions. She was cleared of wrongdoing in a consent judgment with the bar. The bar met with her six times while refusing to meet with Alters, Caballero wrote.
“It was clear to this referee that the bar stridently pursued the wrong lawyer,” Caballero wrote. “It was Ms. Boldt who, despite her denials, authorized over $1 million of improper trust account transfers. Based upon her several days on the witness stand, this referee found her not to be a credible witness. Yet, inexplicably, the charges against her were dropped and she was given diversion, which is not even considered discipline.”
Boldt’s attorney, Hank Coxe of Bedell, Dittmar, DeVault, Pillans & Coxe, declined to comment, citing Alters’ disciplinary matter pending before the Florida Supreme Court.
Caballero found the bar should be granted $1,250 in costs, but recommended Alters be awarded nearly $144,000 for his costs, including paying his attorney and a polygraph expert.
“Why the bar chose to side with [Boldt] and ignore the evidence remains a mystery, but it must pay the cost of that bad choice because there were no justiciable issues of law or fact; simply, there was no evidence that [Alters] authorized or that he knew about the improper trust account transfers when they occurred,” Caballero wrote.
The Florida Supreme Court will make the final decision. The court has not yet ruled on whether Alters should face discipline, and bar prosecutors are still seeking his disbarment.
Alters’ attorney, Andrew Berman of Young Berman Karpf & Gonzalez in Miami, welcomed the findings.
“We are grateful to Judge Caballero for the over five years of effort and time she put into the case and for the well reasoned recommendations,” he said in an email.
Alters, a personal injury lawyer now with Morelli Alters, said last year that the bar’s prosecution cost his firm tens of millions of dollars in legal fees. He was removed from successful class action cases he started, including Chinese drywall and bank overdraft fee litigation, and lost dozens of friends and employees.
A Florida Bar spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.