Thomas Ice. Photo: Melanie Bell

A Palm Beach County law firm is running afoul of some judges and opposing counsel who balk at the behind-the-scenes help it offers pro se litigants.

Ice Legal faces pitfalls from judges, who’ve sanctioned at least one of its clients and demanded the firm’s attorneys show their face in litigation involving their “ghostwritten” pleadings.

But the firm says the pushback reflects ignorance about the Florida Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which allow limited representation as long as the attorneys provide clear notice of their participation. Under the rule, a lawyer can draft and not sign documents for a pro se litigant, but must add language to show the filing was “prepared with the assistance of counsel.”

Ice Legal says complying with that notification requirement has raised red flags for judges and plaintiff lawyers to the extent it created an “explainer” for pro se clients to read in court.

“It gets sticky,” said Ice Legal founder Thomas Ice. “Instead of getting lauded or praised … we’re getting castigated. We’re getting our clients sanctioned. … Everywhere we turn, there are problems.”

Royal Palm Beach-based Ice Legal offers “unbundled” or “as-needed” services to pro se defendants. It doesn’t attend hearings, or sign its name to court filings, but the firm does everything else for clients paying a flat fee of about $200 per month. It says full representation costs about $800 per month because of the time required to prepare for, and attend hearings. Without court appearances, its attorneys and staff can write pleadings, draft discovery motions, file court documents, monitor dockets and perform all other services for a fraction of the cost.

Ice said the business model allows litigants in financial distress the opportunity to afford legal representation. He was a leading advocate for Florida homeowners in the foreclosure crisis of the last housing market collapse. As that business began to wane in 2016, Ice launched a service he said would expand access to the justice system and disrupt the way litigants deal with attorneys and the courts. A beta version of his website offered free and low-cost help to litigants unable to pay traditional attorneys’ fees.

The service is controversial because pro se litigants often benefit from judicial leniency as judges attempt to level the playing field for laypeople facing off against experienced attorneys. Having a lawyer working behind the scenes for these litigants appears to shift that balance, giving an unfair advantage to the “pro se” team. Plus, it allows lawyers to anonymously create court documents filed under the litigants signature.

In October, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Battles ordered Ice to appear for “all future hearings” in a Tampa case where the firm assisted foreclosure defendants Diana Jean Washington, Resheema Washington, Corey Washington, Neka Marie Washington and Jarvis Maurice Washington.

The family appeared to representing itself, until Ice filed a notice of appearance right before the hearing on a defense motion seeking to extend its deadline to respond to the suit. But along with that motion, the defendants also filed a motion to dismiss the suit—this time with Ice stepping in by telephone for the hearing.

Ice said he appeared only because opposing counsel refused to cooperate with the pro se client, whose documents included a note to show they’d been “prepared with the assistance of counsel.” That refusal allegedly forced the clients to enter a full representation agreement that increased their legal expenses.

The judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff with an order pointing to the sudden change in defense strategy.

“Immediately prior to the hearing on the motion for extension, the defendants … filed a motion to dismiss the complaint pro se with the assistance of the Ice Legal P.A. law firm, and the Ice Legal P.A. law file filed a notice of appearance,” Battles wrote in the Sept. 19 order denying the motion for extension.

Another jurist, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Abby Cynamon not only ruled against but also sanctioned Ice Legal client Jeffrey Haym, requiring him to reimburse the plaintiff for an hour’s worth of legal fees. She then ordered Ice Legal to either bow out of Haym’s case, or enter a notice of appearance to become the attorney of record.

Haym is defending a foreclosure suit by The Strand on Ocean Drive Condominium Association Inc., which claims he failed to pay about five years’ worth of assessments at a condo-hotel in Miami Beach. During a hearing on Haym’s motion to dismiss the complaint, Cynamon noticed a line at the bottom of the defendant’s filing indicating he’d had legal assistance.

She asked why his attorney was not in court, and then ordered Ice Legal to participate or enter a notice of nonrepresentation. The judge postponed the hearing, then ordered Haym to reimburse the association an hour’s worth of attorney’s fees for the time spent that day.

Plaintiff attorneys Jason Kellogg and Matthew J. McGuane, of Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman in Miami, declined to comment, citing a pending rehearing before Cynamon.

Meanwhile, Ice Legal complied with the court order and filed a notice of nonappearance of limited-representation counsel, but said the firm falls outside the court’s jurisdiction in this case because it was never on record as Hyam’s attorney.

“As long as there is ignorance out there about this way of practicing, it’s causing a problem,” Ice said. “Judges react with suspicion, suspecting something’s going on behind the scenes.”