TALLAHASSEE — A judge acting as a referee won’t recommend the Florida Supreme Court suspend an attorney who is accused of barratry – "ambulance chasing" – in Texas and has pending complaints against him in Florida.
The Florida Bar can still appeal the referee’s recommendation, Francine Walker, a spokesperson, told the Florida Record. However, it hasn't yet decided whether it will appeal.
At the end of August, the Florida Bar filed a petition for emergency suspension against Christopher Chestnut, a personal injury attorney, alleging Chestnut “appears to be causing great public harm.” The petition says Chestnut is the subject of nine bar disciplinary matters.
In 2014, the bar filed a four-count complaint against Chestnut that alleged lack of competence, candor, diligence and communication, solicitation, dishonesty and excessive fees, among other things. It later dismissed three counts, and Chestnut was found guilty of lack of diligence and communication. He was publicly reprimanded on Oct. 8, 2015.
In May, the bar filed a six-count complaint with similar allegations, including egregious conduct involving a lack of competence, candor, diligence and communication, solicitation, dishonesty, failure to supervise and excessive fees. Those counts are active and scheduled for a final hearing in December.
The bar also relied on a lawsuit filed in July against Chestnut and a Dallas city councilwoman for barratry — a form of solicitation also called ambulance chasing. Matisha Ward, of Dallas, claims the councilwoman feigned concern after the death of her mother in order to secure Ward as a client for Chestnut. Ward’s mother was killed by a pack of loose dogs. She received texts and calls from Councilwoman Tiffinni Young, someone Ward had never met or spoke to before, offering condolences. Eventually, the lawsuit claims, Young advised Ward that she had a legal case. When Ward told Young she was interested in finding a lawyer, she was told to call Young, who passed the phone to Chestnut, who offered to help Ward bring a suit.
“The bar asserts that respondent has caused, is continuing to cause, and is likely to continue causing, immediate and serious harm to clients and/or the public and that immediate action must be taken for the protection of respondent’s clients and the public,” the petition states.
Chestnut could not be reached for comment, but in his response to the petition, he argued that the bar failed to meet the requirements that would allow for an emergency suspension. For one, the bar’s evidence involves allegations dating back months and years. Without new complaints, it doesn’t qualify as an emergency, he asserted.
“The Florida Bar is seeking one of the most severe sanctions of lawyer discipline in Florida, an emergency suspension, yet does not provide one single affidavit with clear and convincing facts demonstrating that Chestnut has been convicted of a serious crime or is likely to cause immediate and serious injury to a client or the public,” his response stated.
The response goes on to claim that Chestnut has been targeted by “certain members of the Florida Bar ‘establishment,’” who have worked with the Florida Bar to prosecute him to fulfill “personal vendettas, racial animus and greed.”
A referee, Circuit Court Judge Curtis Judson Neal, was appointed to hear oral arguments over the bar’s petition. He didn’t comment on Chestnut’s conspiracy theory in his decision, but he sided with him in his recommendation.
Neal wasn’t convinced by Ward’s testimony at the hearing, which he described as inconsistent. In his ruling, he said Ward didn’t say she’d retained a lawyer and asked to speak with Chestnut. Chestnut, in turn, didn’t offer any specifics for hiring him and didn’t have any further communication with her. Ward didn’t file complaints with the bars in Florida or Texas.
Neal took Chestnut’s disciplinary history into account but didn’t recommend discipline.
“When considering the inconsistencies in Ms. Ward's testimony coupled with the dates of the other alleged solicitations which were remote in time, this Court finds that the evidence presented does not 'establish clearly and convincingly that a lawyer appears to be causing great public harm' as required by (rules of discipline),” the decision stated.
Walker said the bar wouldn’t comment specifically on the complaint. But the judge’s recommendation doesn’t mean the issue is over.
“Eventually, the Florida Supreme Court either grants the emergency suspension or not,” Walker said. “Either way, the Florida Bar will continue to vigorously pursue our case against him for other discipline.”