Attorney ordered to attend ethics school after allegedly charging excessive fees

By Kerry Goff | Aug 3, 2016

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court filed a petition on May 19 for attorney Sarah E. Cox, who practices law in Fort Myers, reprimanding and ordering her to attend the Florida Bar's Ethics School and pay all fines and costs.

The Florida Bar filed a complaint against Cox on April 14, alleging she charged excessive fees, failed to abide by trust accounting rules, failed to use property held in trust for designated purpose and failed to maintain required trust account documentation.

The petition explained that in early 2012, Cox accepted the representation of John Griffith to retrieve a Rolls Royce, which had been towed and impounded; retrieve a watch from a local restaurant; clearing certain liens from property owned by Griffith and obtain an annulment of a marriage.

Griffith paid a total of approximately $90,000 for fees and costs to Cox within a few months, the petition stated.

“With regard to the retrieval of the Rolls Royce, (Cox) advised Griffith that she needed $50,000 to retrieve the vehicle,” the report said. “Griffith paid $50,000 to (Cox) for the retrieval of the vehicle.”

The reported further explained that Cox failed to deposit the $50,000 into a trust account, did not retrieve the vehicle and failed to apply the $50,000 to costs or liens associated with the vehicle.

“With regard to the removal of a lien held by Raymond Lumber Building Supply against real property owned by Griffith, (Cox) advised Griffith that she would need $20,000 to pay off the lien,” the report said. “Griffith paid $20,000 to (Cox) for the removal of the lien.”

Cox also allegedly failed to deposit the $20,000 into a trust account and did not obtain a release of the lien, failing to apply the $20,000 toward paying off the lien. Griffith later paid approximately $23,000 to obtain the release of the lien, according to reports.

Because Cox allegedly  failed to create or maintain trust account records for the money received from Griffith related to the vehicle and the lien, charged $20,000 in fees for legal work, and received $90,000 from Griffith without using it to do her job, the court agreed that Cox violated certain rules regulating the Florida Bar.

“The hourly fee charged by respondent was clearly excessive for the nature of the work involved, her experience, and the local legal market,” the report said.

There is current litigation between Cox and Griffith are to resolve a dispute over the sums paid and amounts owed between the parties.

Cox admitted to a failure to communicate and consented to the recommended discipline set forth by the Bar, which is public reprimand and Ethics School, to be completed within six months of the final order, for which Cox will be responsible for the $750 fee for attendance.

Cox also agreed to pay all reasonable costs associated with this case in the amount of $3,237.11. These costs were due within 30 days of the final order.

“(Cox) agrees that if the costs are not paid within 30 days of the final order, (she) will be required to pay interest on any unpaid costs at the statutory rate,” the report said. “(Cox) further agrees not to attempt to discharge the obligation for payment of the Bar's costs in any future proceedings, including but not limited to any bankruptcy proceeding. (She) will be deemed delinquent and ineligible to practice law pursuant to Rule 1-3.6 if the cost judgment is not satisfied within 30 days of the final order, unless an extension is granted by The Florida Bar.”

Cox did acknowledge that her obligation to pay the costs of the proceedings was evidence of strict compliance with the conditions of any disciplinary order or agreement and was also evidence of good faith and fiscal responsibility. Cox claimed that she understood that failure to pay the costs may reflect adversely on her in any other Bar disciplinary matter in which she may be involved.

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