There is a vast gulf between expanding your practice and undertaking matters in areas where you lack qualification. There is, however, a clear line between what is acceptable practice and what is unethical. Unfortunately, some attorneys do not recognize the former and, as a result, wind up on the wrong side of the latter. (The Florida Bar v. Adorno)
Adorno is – for the moment at least – a lawyer in Miami. He and his firm, Adorno & Yoss, represented the plaintiffs in a putative class action suit seeking to defeat an assessment against property owners being levied by the city. On the eve of trial, Adorno offered to settle the class action allegations for $35 million. In response, the city offered $5 million. Ultimately, the parties settled for $7 million, but only for the claims of the individually named plaintiffs. The other members of the class (of which there are thousands) were not included in the settlement and their claims were abandoned. The settlement produced a fee of $2 million for the Adorno firm.
Subsequently, a judge set aside the settlement. An appellate court upheld this decision, holding that it was “patently unfair and compromised the claims of the other class members.” The appellate court went on to hold that, “[i]t defies any bounds of ethical decency to view class counsel’s actions as anything but a flagrant breach of fiduciary duty.” The matter was referred to the bar ethics committee for consideration of disciplinary action.
Adorno’s counsel had argued that he was not experienced in class action matters and that he had relied upon the advice of other, supposedly more knowledgeable lawyers. The Florida Bar, nevertheless, took the position that Adorno’s action was “prejudicial, illogical and unexplainable … [i]t was knowing; not merely negligent.” Although the Florida Bar had recommended a 6-month suspension, the 7 justices of the Florida Supreme Court unanimously suspended Adorno until further notice, giving him until November 16 to show cause why he should not be suspended for 3 years or disbarred.
While awaiting the Court’s decision, the firm has changed its name to Yoss LLP.
THE LESSON TO BE LEARNED: Lawyers can’t simply rely on the advice of others; don’t take cases in areas where you lack the requisite expertise.
I agree that the "other lawyers told me to do it" excuse is as ridiculous as saying, "the dog ate my homework." It's also pretty unbelievable that Adorno simply didn't know what he was doing; at the very least, if expanding into a new practice area, he should have had paralegals researching the basics. Whether his actions were shady or just shoddy, it amounts to the same thing.