A Coral Gables attorney who the Florida Bar once accused of directing a “vast campaign of unprofessional, unethical, and fraudulent conduct that now infects courts and communities across the state” was disbarred by the state Supreme Court in December.
On Jan. 6, that lawyer, Scot Strems, asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider disbarment and put him back in business by the summer.
Strems had been suspended since the state Supreme Court granted the Florida Bar’s request for emergency suspension on June 9, 2020. Strems’ request for rehearing asks for a three-year suspension. Not an additional three years, just three years — Strems asked the suspension get backdated to the start of the original suspension.
That would get Strems off suspension on June 9, 2023, putting him back in business by the summer solstice.
READ MORE: What got Scot Strems under emergency suspension back in 2020
“Rehearing is warranted here because Strems’ misconduct, while serious, should be measured in consideration of his previously unblemished legal history and absence of prior misconduct,” said Strems’ request for a rehearing. “His good faith reformative efforts to respond to the realities of his law firm’s inadequacies prior to his emergency suspension, while imperfect and insufficient, stand as an indication that he was and is motivated to serve the best interests of his clients.”
The Florida Bar filed a response Thursday.
Four discipline cases revolving around management of the Strems’ Law Firm (SLF) and one concerning attorneys fees put Strems in front of a case referee twice.
For the management cases, the referee recommended a two-year suspension followed by a one-year probation with special conditions and completion of the Bar’s Ethics and Professionalism School. This satisfied neither Strems nor the Bar.
Strems wanted the state Supreme Court to review almost everything in the referee’s report, from findings of fact to the recommended suspension. The Bar wanted the state Supreme Court to review the recommended sanction and disbar Strems permanently.
Upon further review, the court agreed with all but one of the referee’s findings of fact, some of the findings of guilt, and none of the punishment. The court disbarred Strems, but not permanently as the Bar wanted. Strems can reapply for admission in five years.
“Although he has certainly engaged in ethically questionable behavior, he has not demonstrated that he is not amenable to rehabilitation,” the court opined. “Permanent disbarment is warranted only where an attorney’s conduct indicates he or she engages in a persistent course of unrepentant and egregious misconduct and is beyond redemption.”
READ MORE: A Florida lawyer has disappeared owning clients, others more than $200,000, the Bar says
The Strems Law Firm gets bigger, but not better
Strems Law Firm gobbled up cases from 2016 through 2018 until, both the referee and the state Supreme Court opined, the bloated caseload became unwieldy.
“SLF lawyers had approximately 700 cases on their individual dockets which was impossible to properly manage,” the referee wrote. “The result was the mishandling of numerous cases which resulted in a plethora of court sanctions ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 a week, case dismissals, neglected clients, and a frustrated judiciary.”
The Supreme Court’s opinion referred to a case when SLF’s Orlando Romero didn’t discuss a counteroffer with his client before making that offer during mediation. In another case, an SLF attorney didn’t show up to a summary judgment hearing and when the judge called SLF, he got put on hold for more than 15 minutes. The judge hung up and held the hearing.
“Rather than hiring an adequate number of attorneys to handle the voluminous caseload, he continued to take on between 20 and 50 new cases each week and questioned slowdowns in the acceptance of new cases,” the court said. “Strems’ focus on bringing in new cases rather than implementing sufficient measures to handle SLF’s volume of cases demonstrates his selfish motive.”
Now-retired Circuit Court Judge Gregory P. Holder provided an affidavit to the referee that stated: “My research into the Strems Law Firm and Mr. Strems has disclosed the fact that Mr. Strems engages in dilatory tactics in virtually every case. The Strems Law Firm refuses to participate in discovery, fails to attend properly noticed hearings, violates court orders, resulting in additional litigation and hearing time before the Court.”
Strems also was accused of submitting false or misleading affidavits in two circuit court cases. The state Supreme Court agreed with the referee’s finding of guilt, pointing out that the trial court in one case “acknowledged the doctored affidavit and Strems’ removal of multiple emails from the email chain in its order granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment” and a separate order telling the defendant to report Strems to the Bar.
A Margate woman, her sons and Strems Law Firm’s fees
Of Strems’ five Bar discipline cases, four were covered in the referee’s report discussing the violations. A fifth concerned 84-year-old Margate woman Margaret Nowak filing a lawsuit against Florida Peninsula Insurance Company over damage to her home from Hurricane Irma. Nowak’s sons, trial lawyer Dennis Nowak and real estate and mortgage broker Ken Nowak, handled handled all communication with SLF.
Ken Nowak told an SLF attorney that a settlement of $36,680 would be acceptable. When Florida Peninsula came back with an offer of $30,000, Ken Nowak told the SLF attorney said take it if you think that’s the best you can do — $22,500 to his mother, $7,500 to SLF.
The referee’s report said Ken Nowak was told that “Mr. Strems himself” was getting involved with the finalization of the settlement. Strems finalized a settlement of $45,000 — $22,500 to Margaret Nowak, $22,500 to SLF — and did so without telling the Nowaks, who contacted the Bar.
Eventually, Margaret Nowak received $31,500 and SLF received $13,500. Strems felt the Bar made way too much over a disagreement about whether or not his firm made too much.
“Although presented by The Florida Bar as a disciplinary matter involving multiple instances of misconduct that included allegations of dishonesty, deception, and deceit,” Strems said in an answer brief to the referee’s report, “this case was, at its essence, a fee dispute between an experienced law firm and its client and her sophisticated sons…”
The referee recommended Strems receive a public reprimand in this case. The state Supreme Court viewed Strems’ conduct differently.
“Although the referee found that there was no evidence that Strems would benefit personally in Nowak’s matter, as the sole owner of SLF, Strems benefited personally from all fees generated by the firm,” the court wrote. “Further, his settlement negotiation of attorney’s fees amounting to 50% of the settlement offer without providing a higher amount for Nowak was clearly selfish.”
In its answer to Strems request for rehearing, filed Thursday, the Bar noted that Strems didn’t disagree with the court on facts or claim the court overlooked the law in determining punishment.
“The only matter he claims this court may have potentially overlooked are ‘the many cases, numbering in the thousands of clients’ that he claims the record proved were ‘properly and ably handled’ by his law firm,” the Bar wrote. “But there is no competent substantial evidence about the handling of those cases for thousands of clients. No one did a quality control review of those cases.
“The Bar addressed the cases from which it received complaints.”