By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Laura Harris is not happy with how the Florida Bar handled her claim against a disbarred lawyer.
She, her five siblings and their mother scraped together $38,000 to hire a Tallahassee lawyer and help their brother and son, Charles E. Bell, who is serving a life sentence in a Florida prison.
It turned out the lawyer, Bernard Daley, made a career of ripping off people like Bell’s relatives by overselling his ability to win appeals or clemency, or to get a prison transfer. After dozens of clients filed Bar complaints against him, Daley surrendered his law license in 2015, when he was 67.
Now Daley is disbarred, Bell, 45, is filing appeals from his cell, and his family has recouped just $2,500, or about 6.5 percent, of the $38,000 they wasted on a thieving lawyer. They received that sum from the Florida Bar Clients’ Security Fund.
“It was very, very disappointing. It was horrible,” said Harris, a customer service manager for Walmart in Dothan, AL. “With all the hassle and everything, all the money he beat us out of, $2,500 is pretty much like a slap in the face.”
The fund pays everyone whose claim is approved in a given year at about the same time. Harris received her check in January.
The Florida Bar started the Clients’ Security Fund in 1967 to reimburse victims of lawyers who get caught stealing their money. The clients can retrieve up to $250,000 for embezzled cash and $5,000 for fees. Using Florida Bar dues, the leadership has spent more than $36.8 million on this public service over a half-century.
An inherent flaw
The machine is well-oiled and generally chugs along, but it has an inherent flaw. Conniving lawyers who get away with doing the bare minimum can hurt clients twice–when they lose cases and when the clients look to the fund for repayment. Even when regulators catch up with serial scammers like Daley, that doesn’t necessarily help their prey get all their money back.
The claim that Harris filed against her brother’s flim-flam lawyer illustrates this flaw.
Harris said her brother badly injured a bystander and left four others wounded in a 1997 Tallahassee club shooting. She said he was using gunfire as cover to carry his beaten friend out of the club after a racially motivated fight that some white club patrons started. Bell, who is African-American, was convicted of five counts of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Daley was the second lawyer the family turned to after another lawyer failed to win a new trial or resentencing. Like any good scam artist, Daley made outrageous promises he never tried to keep.
“He guaranteed we would be OK because nobody died,” Harris recalled. “He just made you feel like you’re on cloud nine, that we got that, that we’re bringing him home.”
Over a period of years, the working-class family pooled their limited resources to keep the case going. At tax time they would send Daley their refunds.
“We let a lot of our own bills go, or be pushed to the side, to pay this man,” Harris said. Finally, she took steps to find out about filing a claim with the Florida Bar.
Lori Holcomb, who oversees the Clients’ Security Fund, responded to Harris’s reproach by saying, “It’s unfortunate, but there are rules and regulations that we follow. That’s how this was analyzed, the same way they would be applied to any other matter.”
Lots of victims
Many of Daley’s victims filed claims. They received a total of $271,662.37, according to fund manager P.J. Osborne.
An internal review of Harris’s claim found that Daley charged $2,500 to seek clemency for Bell. The rest of Daley’s fees covered post-conviction efforts, the first moves toward an appeal, though he never actually filed an appeal.
While Daley did nothing about clemency, he filed two post-conviction motions on Bell’s behalf. The motions went nowhere and there was no follow-up, but the Bar’s claim process doesn’t factor in adequacy because malpractice can be in the eye of the beholder.
“What you consider good work and what I consider good work may be two different things,” Holcomb explained.
So the $2,500 repayment was for the clemency fraud. Harris was entitled to none of the remaining $35,500 because Daley did something–a very little something–to earn his fee.
Kathy Morgan is president of the National Client Protection Organization, a nonprofit that serves as an educational resource for client fund administrators around the country. The group doesn’t rank or critique funds or engage in “micro-managing” specific claims; she would not comment on Harris’s situation.
But Morgan, who runs the Pennsylvania Lawyers Fund for Client Security, did say that at workshops where fund managers share ideas and problems, “consistently, these claims have always been discussed as being the toughest, where some work has been done.”
The consensus is that they should be resolved “based on the specific facts of the case,” Morgan said. “You can’t just have a bright-line rule.”
In other words, flexibility beats one-size-fits-all–Florida’s approach–when it comes to determining payments. Laura Harris would certainly agree.