Florida Bar asks Supreme Court to discipline ‘abusive’ insurance lawyer

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Ron Hurtibise

Published November 5, 2020


Here’s another sign of all-out warfare between Florida home insurance companies and the lawyers who sue them. It’s a war consumers have no choice but to fund through the skyrocketing cost of insurance.

The Florida Bar is asking the state Supreme Court to discipline one of the insurance industry’s longtime defenders following a series of rebukes by judges for obstructive and abusive behavior toward opponents.

The Bar’s complaint against Curtis Lee Allen says the attorney, while defending a home insurance company against a lawsuit by a Tampa man, sought to “intimidate, embarrass and humiliate” the policyholder by threatening him with criminal charges and jail during a deposition.

The complaint is the latest allegation of misconduct against the onetime bulldog prosecutor who came under fire for his temper before resigning from the State Attorney’s Office in Hillsborough County in 2005. Allen is now a partner in the Tampa office of Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig, which focuses exclusively on defense and insurance litigation.

He did not respond to requests by email and phone to comment for this story.

In recent years, Allen and his clients have been admonished by numerous Florida judges and ordered to pay penalties for behaviors that include failing to make court-ordered payments before deadlines set by judges, using abusive language toward witnesses and opposing attorneys, and failing to meet deadlines to produce evidence requested by opponents.

In ordering penalties, judges have criticized Allen for filing too many motions and needlessly delaying cases, consuming court time unnecessarily and driving up legal costs for plaintiffs and insurers.

The accusations, and Allen’s alleged abuses, are byproducts of long-simmering hostility between Florida’s insurance industry and what’s known as the plaintiffs bar — attorneys who represent policyholders in disputes over whether repair claims are covered and how much money should be paid.

Hardened attitudes

In recent years, litigation over insurance claims has increased sharply, contributing to dramatic increases in costs of coverage for every policyholder, whether or not they have ever filed a claim. The result has been a hardening of attitudes by each side: Insurers are more likely to suspect any homeowner who hires an attorney or public adjuster of making a fraudulent claim, while homeowners are quick to accuse their insurance company of looking for any excuse to avoid paying for their claim.

The animosity has permeated Allen’s cases, judges' orders have noted. It also bloats costs of cases by dragging them out unnecessarily, said Paul Handerhan, president of the Fort Lauderdale-based Federal Association for Insurance Reform, a consumer-focused insurance watchdog group.

“The litigation environment has increasingly gotten more contentious over the years,” Handerhan said. “Unfortunately, that increases the amount of time it takes to litigate these cases, which increases legal costs and ultimately those costs are absorbed into the base rate that consumers are paying.”

The Florida Bar routinely reviews allegations of attorney misconduct and asks the Supreme Court to review complaints and impose discipline, if warranted, ranging from a reprimand to disbarment. Over the summer, the Florida Bar accused plaintiffs attorney Scot Strems of heading “a vast campaign of unprofessional, unethical, and fraudulent conduct” by filing thousands of lawsuits against insurers. The Supreme Court will decide on a referee’s recommendation that Strems be found guilty and suspended for two years.

The Florida Bar’s complaint against Allen includes allegations that Allen threatened, during a deposition, to level criminal charges against a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Avatar Property & Casualty “solely to obtain an advantage" in the civil matter.

Allen questioned the plaintiff in a manner that “served no substantial purpose other than to intimidate, embarrass, and humiliate” him, the complaint states. After enduring Allen’s questioning for “a substantial amount of time,” the plaintiff decided to withdraw his lawsuit against Avatar and end the deposition, the complaint said.

In a transcript of a deposition from the case, the plaintiff, Abel Romero Alamo, contradicted an earlier statement that he had never been involved in a lawsuit when he admitted that his lender filed a foreclosure action against him and his wife.

Allen responded, “Well that’s kind of a lawsuit, isn’t it? The only piece of property you’ve owned where you lived with your family, they took you to court, they’re going to take your house away, and you look me in the eye on video camera and tell me you have no other lawsuits. Please explain to me why the court shouldn’t throw this case out and put you in jail for lying to me, please. Because I know Judge Campbell. And I believe she’ll do it.”

Alamo protested, “I didn’t know that that went in to court. I thought we discussed that’s just with the bank.” Later he added, “All we trying to do is trying to refinance the house.”

Pervasive animosity

Echoing criticism leveled by judges in some of Allen’s other cases, the Florida Bar complaint noted unprofessional levels of animosity in Allen’s exchanges with opposing attorneys.

“The conflict between [Allen] and opposing counsel was an ever-present cloud that erupted with nearly every objection,” it said, “and these clashes unnecessarily prolonged the depositions without any consideration of the inconvenience to the witnesses, court reporters or videographers; they were simply collateral damage in the attorneys' game of one-upmanship.”

In an October 2019 hearing, the attorneys spent so much time hurling accusations of misconduct at each other, the judge was forced “to resort to a discipline strategy typically reserved to parents separating bickering siblings and prohibited counsel from speaking to each other,” the complaint said.

While the case that triggered the Florida Bar’s complaint took place in Pinellas County, Allen has faced penalties and admonishment for his behavior in courtrooms in other parts of the state.

In Orange County, a judge overseeing a case against Avatar Property & Casualty awarded the plaintiff a judgment by default, finding that Allen and his law partner committed “numerous violations of discovery, intentional failures to meet court imposed deadlines, refusals to comply with court ordered sanctions, (plus) abusive behavior toward witnesses, opposing counsel and the courts.” The order called the behavior “unacceptable and inappropriate by any measure.”

The judge, Patricia Strowbridge, also noted Allen’s repeated allegations, made without “factual specifics,” that the plaintiffs were committing “fraud.”

In Broward County, Circuit Judge Carlos Rodriguez on Oct. 15 ordered Allen’s client, Universal Property & Casualty, to pay the plaintiff more than $140,000 in penalties after finding that Allen obstructed “everything,” including instructing a witness not to answer any questions from the plaintiff’s attorney.

Rodriguez listed 16 dates on which Allen was ordered to produce evidence or witnesses requested by plaintiffs or was penalized for failing to comply. He noted, “The court has tried everything short of contempt of court to just get the defense stonewall on (proceeding) and incessant attacks on plaintiff’s counsel to stop.”

For a pipe leak claim, “the history of this case is shocking,” the judge wrote. He added that since Allen’s first appearance as co-counsel on April 30, 2018, Allen has “either caused to be filed, filed or generated 360 docket entries on a case that was ready to be tried in May 2018.”

Tenacity and zeal

Among attorneys, Allen’s practice of generating such large amounts of work is seen as a strategy designed to wear down his opponents, Handerhan said. “I’ve talked to people in law firms who try to get their firms (excused) from cases he’s attached to because their offices can’t assign all of their attorneys and resources to deal with them.”

Allen’s dogged pursuit of victory made him a celebrity in the Tampa area during his previous career as a felony prosecutor for the State Attorney’s Office in Hillsborough County.

There, his aggressive style of questioning accused criminals was lauded as helping to secure numerous high-profile convictions. But in at least one case, he was sternly admonished by the trial judge for relentlessly arguing a legal point the judge had already decided, according to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times.

In February 2003, following a string of courtroom successes, Allen was the subject of two complaints that resulted in a 30-day suspension, a demotion and pay cut, the Times reported. One complaint was from a fellow prosecutor who said Allen punched him in the gut in a conflict over who would fetch a case file. The second complaint was from a bar patron who said Allen poked him four times in the shoulder, causing minor bruising, after Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Parade.

Performance reviews in his personnel file praised his tenacity and zeal for the job, the paper reported. However, one supervisor noted he could be “a little thin-skinned and easily offended,” while another said he sometimes had to be reminded that some cases don’t warrant the same degree of tenacity as others.

Two years later, Allen announced his resignation from the State Attorney’s Office after a verbal spat with a judge before a trial, the Tampa Tribune reported in September 2005. After the judge resigned from handling the case, Allen submitted his resignation letter, the story said, saying it was time to pursue other interests for continued growth as a lawyer.

Those interests turned out to be insurance defense work, which he now stands accused of attacking with the same tenacity he brought to his role as a prosecutor.

Handerhan wonders if the intensity of Florida’s war over insurance claims hasn’t blinded both sides to whom they’re supposed to be serving.

“In this contentious environment, the goal on both sides should be not to win but, how do we come to a fair and equitable result?" he said. "Sometimes people are losing sight of the policyholder in this zero-sum game where there has to be a winner and a loser.”