Embattled Florida attorney Scot Strems, who, with his firm, has filed thousands of assignment of benefit and first party lawsuits against Florida property insurers over the last several years, has been found by a court-appointed referee to have violated more than a dozen rules regulating the Florida Bar.
The findings by Judge Dawn Denaro of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court bring Strems one step closer to disbarment by the Florida Supreme Court after a several months long legal battle brought against him by the Florida Bar.
Denaro said the bar had proven Strems violated the 14 rules “by clear and convincing evidence.”
The bar first brought its case against Strems to the state’s high court back in June, when it alleged the owner and sole named partner of Coral Gables-based Strems Law Firm (SLF) had caused great public harm through “a vast campaign of unprofessional, unethical, and fraudulent conduct.”
The Florida Supreme Court issued an emergency suspension of Strems June 9 in response to a 48-page petition from the bar that stated Strems was the respondent of several complaints before the bar. Strems and SLF are also accused of illegally filing multiple lawsuits on an individual policy claim, delaying and ignoring court deadlines, and violating court orders.
Several Florida insurers have reported dealings with the firm that aligned with these allegations and a former associate of the firm testified that the firm had filed thousands of suits against Florida property insurance companies.
Strems denied all of the bar’s claims and filed a motion to dissolve the emergency suspension on June 26, which was denied by Denaro, who was appointed referee of the case. Denaro disagreed then with Strems’ attorneys claims that the misconduct alleged by the bar didn’t warrant emergency suspension and that the bar’s petition was “deficient [and] does not demonstrate that Mr. Strems is causing ‘immediate and serious injury to a client or the public.'”
Strems case then proceeded to trial, which was held Sept. 8 to Sept. 16. Among the bar rules that Denaro found Strems had violated include:
- Lawyers are required to making reasonable efforts to expedite litigation.
- Lawyers must not issue false statements of fact or law to a tribunal or failing to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made.
- Lawyers must not submit evidence known to be false.
- Lawyers must not obstruct another party’s access to evidence or otherwise unlawfully altering, destroying or concealing a document or other material.
- As sole partner and owner of the Strems law firm, Strems failed to ensure that the lawyers in his firm comply with the rule that requires a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.
- A lawyer shall not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
Denaro cited in her findings of the violations conduct by Strems that had led to case dismissals and numerous sanctions issued against him and attorneys representing SLF.
“These matters were always immediately brought to his attention. He was very hands on with the problem cases, and had an open-door policy to his attorneys,” she said.
Denaro also noted testimony from former Strems Associate Christian Aguirre, who served as a witness for the bar and was previously deposed by Security First Insurance Co. in January 2020 in a $321,000 fee dispute. Aguirre, who resigned from the firm in 2018, said that during his tenure the firm had as many as 10,000 lawsuits against insurance companies and that he personally handled as many as 700 in one year for the firm.
In the deposition, also included as evidence in the petition for Strems emergency suspension, Aguirre said the Strems firm did not instruct him to keep track of his time and the law firm billed for case meetings that never occurred.
Denaro said that Aguirre testified during Strems’ trial to remedial actions taken by Strems to remedy issues the firm was having, but she noted these actions were “insufficient and unreasonable in light of the fact that the firm was assigning, according to Aguirre, 20 to 50 cases, new, a week.”
“Aguirre testified that Strems considered more cases to be better. And consequently, his attorneys could not keep up with the volume,” she said.
Denaro now has until Oct. 8 to issue her recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court on Strems punishment up to and including disbarment, which is what the bar has requested.
90 Day Suspension Recommended
In the sanctions hearing following Denaro’s decision on the violations, Strems attorney Scott Tozian said a 90-day suspension of Strems was warranted with a probation period up to three years, with whatever conditions Denaro thinks are appropriate and that would protect the public when Strems is reinstated.
“He’s already suffered the imposition of the emergency suspension,” Tozian said. “The bar hasn’t cited any case law to support the draconian request that they’ve made of you.”
Tozian called Strems case “novel,” saying the bar had “overpled” and “over argued,” it and noted the insurance industry’s involvement.
“I think you can fairly determine that that overpleading, arguing and prayer for permanent disbarment stems from the influence of the insurance industry,” he said.
Strems himself testified he recognized where the firm was deficient in terms of communication and that he could have done better at dealing with problems that had developed at his firm. Still, Strems said he believed his firm “put forth quality representation for the overwhelming majority of our clients.”
Strems testified he didn’t operate the firm to mislead or take unfair advantage of insurance companies, but that generally speaking insurers “do not look to do the right thing for our clients.”
If given the chance to practice law again Strems said he would “do my absolute best every single day to put forth the kind of practice that is expectant and doesn’t just meet standards but go above and beyond whatever standards we consider to be adequate.”
Florida Bar Attorney handling the Strems case Derek Womack said the bar had clearly shown Strems dishonesty and how that dishonesty “came to characterize much of the respondent’s practice, both on his own and the practice of his firm,” and that “such dishonesty can only be explained by an intent to advance and preserve the ultimate financial interest” of Strems and his firm.
He said Strems and the firm routinely pushed forward with cases they should have known were meritless, or at least “deeply, deeply flawed,” and that numerous admonishments and sanctions by the courts have done nothing to curb Strems pattern of misconduct, “the consequences of which the courts are still dealing with.”
“In light of all that, the Florida Bar submits there is no meaningful prospect of reformation, consequently, permanent disbarment provides the only adequate measure to address this misconduct for good and all,” he concluded.
Strems is also facing a contempt of court petition by the bar over claims he violated his emergency suspension order and a racketeering lawsuit by Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
*This story ran previously in our sister publication Insurance Journal.