By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A case that started four years ago as a straightforward debt collection against the family assets of a now-retired Palm Beach Circuit Court judge has morphed into a slugfest of allegations about trickery and bad faith on both sides.
A friend and client of the judge’s late husband, a personal injury attorney, says his survivors welched on a $190,000 loan that came due five weeks after the lawyer died in June 2019.
The complicated tale is told through claims and counterclaims in a lawsuit pending in Palm Beach Circuit Court. Because it involves, at least indirectly, a judge who left the bench just seven months ago and a prominent family of lawyers, the case is the talk of the local Bar.
“The whole attorney world knows of this because the judges found out very early,” said John Gwynn, who claims he’s out more than $225,000 to date because of the loan, plus interest, to his lawyer and old friend William “Billy” Johnson.
Three judges recused themselves from Gwynn’s collection action against the estate of Johnson, the husband of now-retired Palm Beach Circuit Judge Laura Johnson. According to Gwynn, six Palm Beach County lawyers refused to take his case.
“Nepotism and cronyism are alive and well in the 15th Judicial Circuit” of Palm Beach County, said Gwynn, owner of J.D. Gwynn Construction in Delray Beach. He said he was forced to engage a Chicago lawyer he already knew after his first lawyer, Martin Feldman of Broward County, withdrew.
CLIENT: LAWYER HAD TAX LIENS
Gwynn said Billy Johnson, his lawyer for decades and a friend since high school, told him he needed the $190,000 to pay off four IRS tax liens and that if he didn’t act quickly, the government would confiscate his house. He wanted the deal kept quiet to avoid embarrassing himself and his wife the judge, according to Gwynn.
Although he belonged to the exclusive Million Dollar Advocates Forum, Johnson had suffered through some “lean years,” Gwynn said. “He sold me on his caseload” that he said could yield seven-figure fees and promised to repay the money in a year.
“He’s helped me out of a lot of jams, but I’ve always paid him,” Gwynn said. Johnson, 60, died of cancer on June 26, 2019; the promissory note came due on Aug. 1, 2019.
Laura Johnson and her son — Robert “Burr” Johnson, the lawyer for William Johnson’s estate in the debt collection lawsuit — did not respond to Florida Bulldog emails seeking comment.
In court documents Robert Johnson claims Gwynn, the plaintiff, is the one in debt – for unpaid legal fees. He also says the contract between the two men, meaning the promissory note, is “illegal, unconscionable and unenforceable” and was “procured by fraud and/or illegal means.”
“Plaintiff is a wrongdoer and bears much of the fault. Plaintiff is therefore barred from recovery,” Johnson’s counter-petition states. He suggests the deal’s secrecy relates to Gwynn’s divorce proceedings at the time of the loan, not to his father’s desire to avoid embarrassment. The divorce was finalized in November 2020.
JUDGE RULES FOR ESTATE
So far, Johnson seems to be winning the case before Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jaimie Goodman. He eventually will try it without a jury because Gwynn’s lawyer didn’t request one.
Goodman has already indicated that after the trial he’ll entertain motions for sanctions against Gwynn for putting Laura Johnson’s home address in court documents.
Gwynn had noted the address is readily available from public sources. He said he used it to show Judge Johnson benefited from the loan because the funds satisfied liens against her residence.
But that argument, part of Gwynn’s attempt to add her to the collection action as a necessary party along with the defendant Johnson estate, sputtered.
Goodman refused to involve his former Circuit Court colleague in the case, reasoning she didn’t sign the promissory note; the claim that she was unjustly enriched by the unpaid loan, he wrote, is “far too attenuated.” The assertion that she knew she was benefitting from the loan to her husband is “wholly speculative,” the judge concluded.
Goodman also refused to remove Robert Johnson and his law firm Pike & Lustig from the collection case because of allegedly conflicting interests.
‘TOO MANY HATS’?
Gwynn complained that Johnson wears too many hats – personal representative of his father’s estate, custodian of his father’s inventory of client files, and beneficiary of any fees that result from representing those clients.
He has an inherent fiduciary duty to his father’s clients to protect their best interests, according to Gwynn. And that includes a client and creditor named John Gwynn.
The judge sees things differently. On Jan. 11 he denied Gwynn’s motion to disqualify Johnson and Pike & Lustig. Goodman examined each of Johnson’s roles separately, not altogether as Gwynn urged.
“Such motions are generally viewed with skepticism because disqualification of counsel impinges on a party’s right to employ a lawyer of choice,” Goodman wrote.
“The motion is devoid of any factual basis to support the conclusory allegation that Robert C. Johnson’s appointment as inventory attorney somehow caused Defendant to gain an unfair advantage in this litigation,” the judge wrote. “Virtually all the allegations made in this motion are based on conjecture and ‘on information and belief’.”
“The Defendant’s motion to disqualify is deficient and the denial of the motion is required.”
The case is scheduled for trial next month.