Sure, there's probably more to it, but the basics of personal injury law seem pretty straightforward: negotiate with insurance companies, work out a settlement, turn over the check to your clients.
But according to the Florida Bar, one Miami attorney forgot to do the last part. Disciplinary documents say Raul Enrique Garcia on numerous occasions misused his clients' settlement funds, stashing them in his own bank account or using them to pay off other debts. As a result, the Florida Supreme Court has suspended Garcia from practicing law for three years; should he return to the profession, he will be placed on probation for an additional year.
Garcia did not return an email from New Times seeking comment.
The Florida Bar began investigating in May 2014 when one of Garcia's clients reported she was still waiting for her funds eight months after her case was settled. After subpoenaing his records, investigators learned of six cases where Garcia disbursed clients' money into his own accounts.
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In two of the cases, Garcia used settlement funds from newer clients to pay off money he owed to older clients, according to the bar's complaint. In other instances, Garcia repaid clients from his personal bank account months after misspending their settlements. More than a few of his clients grew agitated with the long waits for their checks – Garcia's disciplinary file contains several screenshots of text messages in which he assured clients their checks were in the mail, knowing he'd already received and deposited their funds.
Garcia deposited one $75,000 settlement check, for example, on June 28, 2013. But when his client texted him about the check on July 11, Garcia told him to "sit tight." He gave similar responses in August, September, and October of that year. When Garcia finally turned over the money in November, the client texted back that the bank reported there were insufficient funds to cover the check.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alberto Milian – who refereed the disciplinary proceedings – wrote in January 2018 that there was no convincing evidence Garcia "intentionally converted" clients' settlement money. But Milian did say Garcia should have known the transactions were improper. The judge's report notes that during the time period of the alleged misbehavior, Garcia was acting as the sole caregiver for his terminally ill mother and going through a contentious divorce and custody battle. Garcia had no prior disciplinary record with the state bar.
The state supreme court on April 23 issued an order for Garcia's suspension, citing "a pattern of misconduct and multiple offenses." Three of the justices dissented, saying they would have disbarred Garcia permanently.