Judge Finds Strems Guilty of Misconduct; Advises 2-Year Suspension, Probation
After finding Florida attorney Scot Strems in violation of numerous rules regulated by The Florida Bar last month, the court-appointed referee overseeing his case has recommended a 24-month suspension followed by one year of probation.
In a report issued to the state’s highest court Oct. 8, Judge Dawn Denaro of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court in Miami recommended that Strems be found “guilty of misconduct justifying disciplinary measures.”
She wrote that the testimonial and documentary evidence has established that Strems, the sole named partner of the Strems Law Firm, “caused a variety of problems for the judiciary, attorneys, and members of the public across the State of Florida,” Denaro wrote.
The recommendation fell short of the disbarment punishment sought by the The Florida Bar.
The bar sought and was granted an emergency suspension of Strems by the Florida Supreme Court back in June over allegations that Strems and his firm were causing great public harm, illegally filing multiple lawsuits on an individual policy claim, delaying and ignoring court deadlines, and violating court orders.
In her recommendation, Denaro said the bar had failed to prove its allegations that Strems was engaged in a duplicitous filing scheme against insurers and should be found not guilty of violating five rules governed by the bar.
During the Sept. 8 to Sept. 16 trail for Strems, Denaro heard testimony from 20 witnesses, including Strems himself who she said expressed remorse and demonstrated he had made efforts to improve the firm’s processes and communication. Denaro noted, however, that Strems had been less than forthcoming in part of his testimony regarding a financial agreement with a former law firm associate who started a new firm.
Denaro cited testimony of clients and judges that claimed Strems Law Firm attorneys missed scheduled court appearances, failed to properly communicate with clients, failed to properly explain settlement offers or liabilities to clients, submitted false or misleading affidavits, caused delays in litigation, and engaged in other overall conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Denaro also cited witness testimony of former associate and litigation managing attorney Christopher Aguirre, who said his caseload consisted of approximately 700 cases when he started at the firm in 2016. Aguirre, serving as a witness for the bar, testified he had recommended a number of policies and procedures to make the firm more efficient, including the hiring of more attorneys to handle the firm’s large case load.
Not mentioned in Denaro’s report was previous testimony from Aguirre in a January deposition with Security First Insurance Co. over a $321,000 fee dispute that was evidence in the petition for Strems emergency suspension. Aguirre said in that deposition the firm had as many as 10,000 lawsuits against insurance companies and that the Strems firm did not instruct him to keep track of his time and billed for case meetings that never occurred. Aguirre left the firm in 2018.
While acknowledging Strems had implemented remedial measures related to case and office management at the urging of Aguirre and a representative from the bar, “those efforts proved to be insufficient” due to the remaining volume of approximately 500 cases per two attorney teams and the amount of new cases taken on weekly, Denaro’s report stated.
The judge said Strems was involved in virtually every aspect of his firm’s law practice, including litigation decisions, strategies, and the settlement of cases.
“Mr. Strems could have possibly mitigated the harm which he caused to the judiciary, attorneys, and members of the public across the State of Florida by refraining from taking in twenty to fifty new cases per week for a period of time, identifying problematic cases, and working to stabilize them,” Denaro noted.
Proven Bar Violations
Denaro said testimonial and documentary evidence established that Strems was responsible for many of the rule violations the bar alleged. The firm’s growth between 2016 and 2018 put Strems firms in the position of having 700 cases on their individual dockets, “which was impossible to properly manage” and resulted in the mishandling of numerous cases leading to a “plethora of court sanctions, case dismissals, neglected clients and a frustrated judiciary.”
All told, Denaro cited 11 bar rules regulating the Florida Bar that Strems had violated, including:
- Meritorious claims and contentions
- Making reasonable efforts to expedite litigation
- Candor toward the tribunal
- Fairness to opposing party and counsel
- Responsibilities of partners, managers and supervisory lawyers
Unproven Bar Violations
Denaro recommended that Strems not be found guilty of violating bar rules regarding misconduct and minor misconduct, and diligence.
Upon further review of the record, Denaro said The Florida Bar had also failed to prove rule violations related to fairness to opposing party and counsel after previously ruling in her oral pronouncement last month that Strems had violated those rules.
Of greater significance to the state bar is Denaro’s conclusion that his accusers had not been able to prove allegations that Strems had concocted a duplicitous filing scheme, as the bar and some in the Florida insurance industry claimed.
Denaro cited an affidavit from Judge Rex Barbas of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court that Strems had failed to abide by local rules of procedure, pertaining to notice of related cases and duplicitous filings with court. But Denaro said the bar was unable to prove Strems engaged in a duplicitous filing scheme by “clear and convincing evidence.” Denaro said Barbas’ language in the affidavit submitted did not match language of his circuit court or Hillsborough County on the requirement to “notify the court of any related cases at the beginning of the first hearing on any matter set in the case,” where the court has defined a case as “related” if it is a pending civil case filed in the court or county involving the same parties and same legal issues
“Judge Barbas testified that he was giving his interpretation of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit’s administrative orders in his affidavit, he did not quote directly from the administrative orders, he told SLF verbally what he ‘believed related cases were,’ and he did not publish his interpretation of the administrative order generally to other lawyers that practiced before the court,” Denaro said.
Denaro cited testimony from Strems’s former associate Aguirre who the judge said was “very clear” that while he was at the firm neither Strems nor any firm associates intentionally violated court orders. She said Aguirre was also clear that Strems never directed him or any other attorney to violate any rule regulating the Florida Bar and that he wasn’t instructed by Strems to file nor prosecute cases without proper authority.
Other attorneys from Strems’ firms who testified confirmed that Strems “never asked them to violate the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar,” Denaro wrote, adding that Aguirre testified he was not aware of any Miami-Dade County requirement for case consolidation and there was “nothing sinister about assignment of benefits cases.”
Remorse and Recommended Punishment
In reaching her disciplinary recommendation, Denaro took into consideration that Strems had not been previously disciplined, a multitude of documents showing Strems had taken steps to mitigate the numerous sanction orders against him, as well as his character and reputation through letters referencing substantial charitable donations.
She also noted he had demonstrated remorse through his testimony that was corroborated by evidence of practice revisions, law firm support and training, among other actions.
Strems himself testified that he recognized where the firm was deficient in terms of communication and that he could have done better at dealing with problems that had developed at his firm. Still, Strems said he believed his firm “put forth quality representation for the overwhelming majority” of its clients.
Strems testified he didn’t operate the firm to mislead or take unfair advantage of insurance companies, but that generally speaking insurers “do not look to do the right thing for our clients.”
There was no evidence of any financial irregularities concerning Strems or any client trust accounts, Denaro said, and Strems continuously stated that “his goal was to supply good legal counsel for his clients to defend their rights against insurance companies with vast resources.”
Strems had also made “timely good faith effort to make restitution or rectify consequences of misconduct, and that all monetary sanctions imposed by courts were paid in full.”
In addition to the two-year suspension dating back to when the emergency suspension began in June, Denaro recommended Strems be monitored by the bar during his probation. Terms of the probation should also include the successful completion of the bar’s Ethics and Professionalism School.
Strems must reimburse the bar for the costs of his proceedings within 30 days, Denaro recommended, and reimburse the bar for the costs of his supervision, as well as pay all fees and costs required of the probationary conditions.
Despite Strems not receiving the ultimate punishment of disbarment, the Florida Consumer Protection Coalition, a group spearheaded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce that includes insurers, contractor groups and agent associations, called the two-year suspension “a victory for consumers who have been harmed by his law firm and for taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for his firm’s outrageous litigation-for-profit schemes and systematic disregard for judicial procedures across Florida.”
The group said the suspension should serve as a warning for other trial bar firms across the state “whose business model is also to solicit unsuspecting homeowners and file thousands of often questionable lawsuits to drive up their attorney fees.”
“What is especially troubling in this case is that Strems’ and his law firm’s behavior lasted for years – drawing sanctions from judges across Florida and harming consumers all the while – before any disciplinary action was finally taken against him,” CPC said in a statement to Insurance Journal. “The Consumer Protection Coalition urges the Florida Legislature to examine the attorney fee provisions in state law that fuel this type of litigation abuse and calls on officials to examine and improve the system for identifying and addressing attorneys who are abusing consumers and the court system.”
According to the rules of the bar, the bar and Strems have 60 days to appeal the referee’s decision. The state Supreme Court can approve or disapprove of any aspect of guilt or discipline and its decision is final.
Strems is also facing a contempt of court petition by the bar over claims he violated his emergency suspension order and a racketeering lawsuit by Citizens Property Insurance Corp.