A state appellate court Wednesday sanctioned Palm Beach attorney Guillermo J. Farinas, holding him personally responsible for half of an attorney fee award against his client.
Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal held Farinas and client Joseph Manzaro equally liable for “frivolous and completely meritless” filings in a child custody case that jumped from Broward to Palm Beach County. It remanded the case to the lower court with instructions to divide the opposing side’s attorneys fees between Farinas and Manzaro, then took the additional step of making an allowance for future litigation expenses.
“If a motion for rehearing is filed in this court, then services rendered in connection with the filing of the motion, including, but not limited to, preparation of a responsive pleading, shall be taken into account in computing the amount of the fee,” the court ordered.
It was an unusual sanction, but ethics lawyer Andrew Berman has seen it employed with growing frequency as judges order attorneys to explain why courts shouldn’t sanction them along with their clients.
“Appellate courts have become frustrated with frivolous appeals and motions,” said Berman, senior partner at Young Berman Karpf & Gonzalez in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, who was not involved in the litigation. “It’s done as a method to dissuade people from taking frivolous positions.”
Farinas is a veteran attorney admitted to the Florida Bar in 1979 with no disciplinary action in the last 10 years. He said the appellate panel’s decision shocked him and that he plans an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“I’m not going to pay one penny of attorneys fees to anybody because I’ve done everything in good faith,” he said. “I’ve lost my respect for the Fourth DCA. … I definitely object completely to this order.”
Court records show Farinas turned to the Palm Beach Circuit in 2016 to file a complaint for relief from a 2012 agreed final order from Broward County, claiming extrinsic fraud and lack of personal jurisdiction. Litigants typically have a one-year window to seek to set aside an order, with exceptions for fraud, mistakes and other causes under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b).
Farinas’ filings suggest he anticipated two hurdles: a potential deadline impediment and the leap from one county—which still maintained jurisdiction—to another. To mitigate these, he brought the fraud claim and pitched his Palm Beach filing as an independent action. But the appellate court rejected both strategies, citing precedent requiring litigants to raise fraud claims in the original court.
“The appellant has had multiple opportunities to raise the issues presented in his complaint to the Broward Circuit Court and, in fact, has done so,” Judge Jeffrey T. Kuntz wrote in a unanimous decision with Judges Carole Taylor and Dorian Damoorgian. “His attempt at filing a new lawsuit in a different circuit, after those prior attempts were rejected and while other new attempts still remain pending in the Broward Circuit Court, is completely devoid of merit.”
Farinas represents Manzaro in a family law case that started in Broward County in 2012 and has since yielded litigation across South Florida. One of the cases stemmed from opposing counsel Megan K. Wells, who has a permanent stalking injunction against Manzaro.
“This is by far the craziest case I’ve ever had in my career,” said Wells, who’s been practicing in family court since 2013. “When I tell my colleagues the things that occur … in open court, people don’t even understand why I stay on this case.”
At least six judges have recused themselves in Broward—some after only one hearing—and Farinas filed motions to disqualify two others.
The underlying litigation involves a dispute with Manzaro’s mother, Linda D’Alessandro, over which family member should gain custody of Manzaro’s seven-year-old son.
Manzaro claimed his mother drugged and tricked him into signing documents that helped her gain custody of the child after his partner died in Miami in April 2013. He has a pending wrongful death suit, brought with Farinas’ help, against the hospital where she died.
Court records show D’Alessandro petitioned for temporary custody in January 2012, then filed an agreed final order that month claiming Manzaro consented to let the child live with the grandmother. But Manzaro claimed the timing showed his mother’s intention to “kidnap” the child, more than a year before his partner’s death. He and Farinas accused the Broward judiciary and Clerk of Courts office of assisting D’Alessandro by tampering with records and ignoring evidence.
“This is outrageous and criminal in nature,” Farinas wrote in an email. ”I believe that these fees and the related sanctions are being imposed to ‘shut down’ our challenge of the temporary custody in Broward County, because we have alleged fraud upon the court. The appellate court does not want to deal with this issue.”
In August, the Fourth DCA affirmed Judge Edward A. Garrison’s dismissal of Manzaro’s complaint in Palm Beach Circuit Court, the issued an order to show cause.
“Rather than responding to our order—why he and his counsel should not be sanctioned—the appellant begins his amended response by seeking attorney’s fees against the appellee,” Kuntz wrote for the Fourth DCA.
The appellate panel instead awarded appellate fees and costs to D’Alessandro in the Palm Beach Circuit Court case as a sanction against Farinas and his client. Wells said the litigation in Palm Beach County alone has cost D’Alessandro about $4,000, with a mounting bill of about $20,000 for the Broward case.