Florida Twelfth Circuit Judge charged with misconduct for allegedly accepting Tampa Bay Rays tickets from firm with case pending before him

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the February 1, 2016 Notice of Formal Charges filed by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) against Florida Twelfth Circuit Judge John Lakin for allegedly requesting and accepting Tampa Bay Rays tickets from a law firm which had a case pending before him.  The JQC charges are here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/182/2016-182_notice_77834.pdf

According to the JQC Notice of Formal Charges and charges, in June 2015, the judge was presiding over the personal injury case of Wittke v. Walmart June, wherein the plaintiff accused Walmart of negligence, which caused her to fall and injure herself.  After a trial, Walmart was found by the jury not to be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.  The day after the verdict was rendered, the judge asked his judicial assistant to contact the law firm which defended the plaintiff to request tickets for that night’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox.

The judge received five tickets valued at about $100 each, and he indicated that he only used two of the tickets.  The judge was from the Boston area.  According to the JQC Notice:  “The tickets you received were excellent seats, being located seven to eight rows back, between home plate and first base”.

According to the JQC Notice, the plaintiff’s law firm filed a motion 6 days later to set aside the verdict and for a new trial.  The motion was heard on August 21, 2015; however, the judge did not rule at that time.  On August 25, 2015, the judge requested and received five more tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays game from the law firm and, on August 26, 2015, the judge issued an order setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial.  The Order stated that  “(n)o reasonable jury could have returned a verdict finding that the Defendant was not at least partially liable for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff based on the evidence presented at trial.”   The Notice further states:  “(y)our extraordinary action allowed the Plaintiff a second opportunity to seek damages from Walmart. You have acknowledged that during your tenure on the bench you have never before overturned a jury verdict.”

According to the JQC Notice, the Chief Circuit Judge for the 12th Judicial District told the judge his conduct was inappropriate and told him to report it to the JQC.  The judge then disclosed that he had received tickets from the firm both to the JQC and to Walmart attorneys; however, according to the Notice, “(y)our subsequent disclosure to the parties on October 9, 2015, stated only that, ‘I previously received Tampa Bay Rays baseball tickets from the…law firm.’  Your disclosure did not include the dates that you accepted the tickets, nor did you even explain that you had accepted the tickets while the Wittke matter was pending.”  The JQC Notice also states that the judge received baseball tickets from two other law firms which have appeared before him.

The JQC rules prohibit judges from conducting activities outside of the courtroom which cast a reasonable doubt on his or her ability to be impartial, undermine the judge’s independence, or demean the judicial office and from “accepting gifts, favors, bequests or loans from lawyers or their firms if they have come or are likely to come before the judge.”

The JQC rules provide that the judge may file an answer to the Notice and charges within 20 days. The JQC will hold hearings and make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, which will issue a formal order/opinion and impose discipline if the judge is found guilty.

Bottom line: This is a somewhat extraordinary and surprising case.  Perhaps the judge was unaware of the rules prohibiting accepting gifts from lawyers, specifically when the case is pending before him; however, under the most unfavorable argument, the judge could be alleged to have accepted the gift and issued favorable ruling as a direct result of the law firm’s gift.  Both lawyers and judges must be very aware of these clear prohibitions and also that the consequences of a violation of the rules, whether intentional or unintentional, will most likely be very severe.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
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