ORLANDO – In a sign that the Florida Bar is taking a no-nonsense approach with its members, it disciplined four lawyers earlier this month for wide-ranging offenses.
Stephen L. Cook of Palm Beach Gardens was punished following a December court order. Cook is alleged to have wrongly shared fees with a company that provided him with debt consolidation services and recommended him to clients. Not only this, but he allegedly failed to supervise the employees, who were not legal professionals, as they made unwieldy promises to prospective clients. Due to their nature, many of these purported promises could never be fulfilled.
Talitha Marcine Leacock of Hollywood was reprimanded after she allegedly didn’t respond to inquests from the Bar in a required period of time.
The most severe punishments were doled out to Michael J. Silver of Boca Raton and Nicholas Theodore Steffens of Coconut Creek. Stevens was suspended for at least five years while Silva received disbarment.
Steffens received a disciplinary revocation due to his impending legal trial. Steffens turned himself in to police in October after prosecutors argued he misappropriated funds from foreclosure transactions and allegedly kept more than $500,000 for himself. Disciplinary revocation is on par with disbarment, except it allows for the charged attorney to seek readmission after five years.
Silver was disbarred, effective immediately, after purportedly accepting $5,000 in a clemency case and refusing to take legal action or return the deposit. Silver cut off all ties with the client and allegedly took the money without taking any legal action.
Disbarment can be appealed in certain circumstances, although it is unclear if Silver will take that route. It is also rare, although becoming more relevant in the Florida Supreme Court in recent years.
“Disbarment is the harshest sanction in the disciplinary system. It is often imposed for very serious offenses, such as misappropriating funds or property, mishandling trust funds, conviction of criminal felonies, and conduct involving fundamental dishonesty,” Tim Chinaris, associate dean of academic cffairs at Belmont University, told the Florida Record.
Chinaris, who was the ethics director of the Florida Bar for 10 years up until 1997, does not believe that this recent string of punishment should worry lawyers. However, it has become clear that the Bar has felt the need to be stricter.
“Over the past few years, however, it has become clear that the Florida Supreme Court is taking a much harder line on attorneys who violate the ethics rules,” Chinaris said. “In just the past four years, there have been at least 22 published disciplinary cases in which the Supreme Court imposed a greater disciplinary sanction than the Bar sought or the referee who tried the case recommended.”
As Chinaris notes, due to the severity of the penalties, prosecutors now have every reason to push for harsher settlements.