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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 7, 2003 15 years ago

Lawyers Fight Lawsuit as Defendants

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A group of Tampa Bay area lawyers are entangled in a lawsuit that threatens to drag out in circuit court for a long time to come.On Oct. 16, attorney Steven Berman filed a lawsuit on behalf of SSMC Inc. against Gibbs & McCurley PA, Gibbs & Associates P

Lawyers Fight Lawsuit as Defendants

By Hali White

Legal Affairs Editor

The sharks are circling.

A group of Tampa Bay area lawyers are entangled in a lawsuit that threatens to drag out in circuit court for a long time to come.

On Oct. 16, attorney Steven Berman filed a lawsuit on behalf of SSMC Inc. against Gibbs & McCurley PA, Gibbs & Associates PA, Gibbs & Runyan PA, Janette McCurley PA, B. Gray Gibbs, individually, and Janette McCurley individually. Gibbs and McCurley declined comment for this article.

The suit seeks payment of $56,000 in sanctions, plus fees and interest. Berman says the total has passed the $100,000 mark.

The lawsuit dates back to 1995 when SSMC Inc. was a creditor to Singer Furniture Acquisition Corp. (SFAC), which filed for Chapter 11 protection in bankruptcy court in Tampa, represented by Gray Gibbs and his St. Petersburg firm, Gibbs & Runyan PA. The bankruptcy was filed days before summary judgment in favor of SMC was to be entered against SFAC in U.S. District Court for Western Virginia, according to Berman.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alexander Paskay dismissed the SFAC bankruptcy petition.

Berman, taking the position that the Chapter 11 had been filed in bad faith solely to frustrate a judgment in favor of SSMC, subsequently sought sanctions against the law firm of Gibbs & Runyan, David Runyan and associate Cindy LeCicero. Paskay denied that motion.

On appeal, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida reversed Paskay's decision and remanded the case. Ultimately, Paskay determined sanctions in the amount of $56,441 against the Gibbs firm and Paul Bilzerian, the principle of SFAC. Bilzerian was later dropped from the sanctions.

Despite further appeal, the Florida Middle district court upheld the sanctions order.

During the back-and-forth, Berman learned that Gibbs & Runyan had become Gibbs & Associates PA. Next, Berman says he learned that Gibbs & Associates had sold all its assets to Gibbs & McCurley. Janette McCurley, Gibbs' new partner, had been an associate in "Gibbs & Associates."

Based on the argument that Gibbs & McCurley was basically the same as the old firm, Berwin filed a motion for contempt against Gray, individually and as a principle in the firm. Paskay agreed that Gibbs & McCurley was obligated to pay the $56,000 sanctions owed by Gibbs & Associates.

The current civil suit claims fraudulent transfer of assets between the two firms, and the two additional firms created when Gibbs and McCurley split to form solo firms. Berman, a partner in the law firm of Berman & Norton Breman, is still seeking those sanctions.

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