|Attorney Who Took on Miami Archdiocese Loses License
By Jay Weaver
February 23, 2009
A high-profile South Florida attorney who built a lucrative law practice suing the Archdiocese of Miami in clergy sex-abuse cases has had his license suspended.
A lawyer who drew a ton of publicity as he collected millions of dollars in clergy sexual-abuse settlements from the Archdiocese of Miami has been suspended from practicing law for 1 ? years by the Florida Supreme Court.
Attorney Jeffrey M. Herman, who brought upwards of 50 negligence lawsuits against the archdiocese, must stop his involvement in the remaining cases and all other litigation after the state Supreme Court found him guilty of professional misconduct.
''Herman shall accept no new business until he is reinstated to the practice of law in Florida,'' the high court wrote in a 20-page opinion.
Herman violated the Florida Bar's conflict of interest rules when he started up an aviation company in the late 1990s that directly competed with a client in the same business -- without disclosing it.
The client, Aero Controls of Seattle, sued Herman and his law firm. After a 2005 out-of-court settlement, Aero filed an ethics complaint against him with the Florida Bar.
In a statement issued Friday, Herman acknowledged he invested in an aircraft leasing company, Nation Aviation, and did not disclose it to a legal client who was also in the aircraft parts business.
''There was no allegation that my work as an attorney for the client was compromised because of my interest in the other company,'' said Herman, 48, whose former law firm is in Aventura.
''I opposed the imposition of sanctions against me in the disciplinary proceeding, but now that the court has acted I will not be practicing law during the period of suspension,'' said Herman, who had disputed his guilt and later argued that he deserved a public reprimand by the state Supreme Court, at most.
''I will instead use the time to help victims of sexual abuse in other ways,'' he said.
The ethics complaint filed with the Florida Bar was heard by a referee, Miami-Dade County Judge Antonio Arzola. He found that Herman's aviation company had hired away a salesman for Aero Controls, his law firm's client, in 1999. The salesman generated more than $880,000 in parts sales for Herman's company, Nation Aviation.
Herman was not only a personal investor in Nation Aviation, but his law firm represented the new company while it was still counsel for Aero Controls.
''His failure to disclose was dishonest and deceitful,'' the judge wrote in his report, recommending a three-month suspension for Herman.
But the state Supreme Court, which has final say over the Florida Bar complaint, didn't think it was harsh enough -- imposing a suspension six times longer along with $11,741 in legal costs to be paid to the Florida Bar.
With Herman under suspension, his former law partner, Stuart Mermelstein, will assume all of the firm's ongoing sexual-abuse cases against the Miami Archdiocese as well as other defendants in Florida and elsewhere.
Mermelstein is now partners with Adam Horowitz, who once worked as a lawyer for a Miami law firm that represented the archdiocese. Horowitz said he doesn't handle any negligence cases against his former client.
'Now that [Herman's] been suspended, I will continue to represent clients' rights in the civil litigation and continue to take on new cases,'' Mermelstein said Friday.
Mermelstein's partnership with Herman grew especially lucrative after the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal erupted nationwide in 2002. Herman played the role of rainmaker, attracting dozens of alleged victims of molestation and other sex abuse by priests in the Miami Archdiocese.
Last year, the archdiocese reported paying $21.3 million on settlements involving allegations of clergy sexual abuse -- with the majority of those payouts going to Herman's clients. His law firm received a contingency fee up to 30 percent, generating millions in earnings.
Herman was known for regularly sending out news releases about his cases and conducting news conferences at his law firm, at the archdiocese headquarters in Miami Shores and at churches where the accused priests once worked or still worked.
At his Aventura law office, Herman almost came to blows with a Catholic priest, Alvaro Guichard, who showed up at a news conference. Herman had accused Guichard of sexually abusing a handful of victims who were altar boys.
Guichard, who has been suspended from practicing as a priest in the Miami archdiocese, denied the allegations and later sued Herman for defamation.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese declined to comment about Herman's suspension by the Florida Supreme Court.
''It would not be appropriate to comment on this matter,'' spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said.
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