By Francisco Alvarado, Florida Bulldog.org
The Miami-Dade Circuit judge who chose to quit presiding over the high-profile Shelborne Hotel case due to an apparent conflict of interest, funneled the case directly to a second judge with a similar conflict in a way that avoided the case being randomly reassigned.
Typically, judges recuse themselves from cases in which they have a disqualifying conflict or the appearance of a conflict. But in the Shelborne case, Judge Jennifer Bailey chose another path after disclosing that she briefly had attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which prominent Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property partially owned by one of his companies. Two other of Galbut’s companies were defendants in the Shelborne case.
“If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case,” Bailey said in open court during a Dec. 14 hearing.
But five days later, using her authority as administrative judge of the civil division, Bailey transferred the case to her associate administrative judge, Beatrice Butchko, who also actively campaigned in 2014 to convince voters to approve a bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse to replace downtown’s landmark courthouse built in 1928. The referendum did not pass.
Within weeks, Butchko tossed out the entire case that Bailey had set for trial in early January.
“Cases are randomly reassigned upon recusal,” said court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler. “This was not a recusal. This was a transfer.” Transfers fall under the jurisdiction of the administrative judge, per 11th Judicial Circuit administrative orders adopted in 1979 and 2016.
For more than two years, Bailey had presided over the lawsuit filed by 40 investors who purchased rooms at the historic art deco Shelborne South Beach against the property’s condo association, condo board members, and companies tied to developer Galbut. The plaintiffs, who sued in 2012, alleged the condo association illegally assessed them $30 million in unnecessary repairs and renovations at the Shelborne, damaged their rooms and have tried to force them into foreclosure so the Galbut entities can acquire their units at a huge discount.
Butchko, however, made quick work of the investors’ case after she took over. She dismissed key parts in early January, days before jury selection was to begin. She tossed the rest the following week. She did so while brushing aside a plaintiffs’ request that she recuse herself from the case and for a change of venue.
“Obviously we were going to ask Bailey to remove herself once we found out about her involvement with Galbut,” Gia Hutt, one of the 40 investors, told Florida Bulldog. “But before any of that happened, she handed off the dirty work to Butchko, who destroyed our case.”
Hutt said the investors’ plan an appeal, but none was filed as of Tuesday.
Miami-Dade court spokeswoman Sigler said Bailey and Butchko would not comment on their rulings. She explained, however, that Bailey assigned the case to Butchko, who are both in the complex business litigation section, because Butchko was the only judge available to handle what was expected to be a 7-week trial for the Shelborne case that was set to start Jan. 9.
“The parties expressed their satisfaction with the transfer at the time, in the interest of keeping their specially-set trial date,” Sigler added.
But the case never got to jury selection. On Jan. 20, Butchko issued a summary judgment in favor of the Shelborne Beach Hotel Condominium Association and its board, as well as Shelborne Property Associates and Shelborne Operating Associates, two companies partially owned by Galbut. Butchko ruled that the plaintiffs had not presented any material facts disputing the defendants’ assertions that the repairs were necessary to address life safety issues.
Alice K. Sum, an attorney at the Fowler White Burnett law firm who represented the condo association, refuted Hutt’s claims that Bailey and Butchko were both compromised because of their public advocacy for a new courthouse and Galbut’s offer to build one.
“On the first day we appeared before Butchko, she said she didn’t know who Russell Galbut is and that her involvement in anything related to a new courthouse dated back to the prior initiative that was voted down in 2014,” Sum explained. “There’s no doubt lawyers and judges would like a new courthouse. But to imply no judge can be impartial because of that is to taint public servants unnecessarily.”
Kevin Malek, lead attorney for Hutt and the other 39 investors, declined comment.
Hutt, however, said that before Bailey disclosed her meeting with Galbut and transferred the case to Butchko, she had denied motions by the defendants to dismiss 8 of the 12 counts in their lawsuit, including civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing. According to a Dec. 29 motion filed by the defendants, Bailey’s rulings were contrary to state law that required her to disclose her conflict before making a decision.
On Jan. 6, 19 days after she took over the case, Butchko granted the defendants’ request to reverse Bailey’s denials and dismissed the eight counts, according to court documents. By doing so, Hutt contends, Butchko crippled their case.
“You have a judge who is on the case for less than a [month] and throws out most of our lawsuit,” she said. “She took our rights away to go before a jury.”
Condo association attorney Sum said Butchko had sufficient time to process evidence presented by the defense that the repairs and renovations were not only necessary, but mandated by the City of Miami Beach. She claimed the plaintiffs’ counsel offered nothing to refute that.
“Judge Butchko explained she has been brought in again and again to take over cases,” Sum said. “So she had a lot of experience getting up to speed on cases dumped on her last minute. Butchko is well regarded among her peers and lawyers as a hard worker.”
Lenny Walder, another the 40 investors, doesn’t buy it.
“The same element of ‘eureka’ and awareness Bailey had on the new courthouse issue should have applied to Butchko, since she too is a courthouse advocate,” Walder said. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Butchko should have recused herself.”