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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 25, 2004 17 years ago

Lawyers v. Lawyers

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Landlord threatens to evict a Tampa law firm that is mired in litigation with its former Miami partners.

Lawyers v. Lawyers

Landlord threatens to evict a Tampa law firm that is mired in litigation with its former Miami partners.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

About a month ago the partners at McCumber Inclan Daniels Valdez Buntz & Ferrera PA received good news. The 5th District Court of Appeal affirmed their trial work in the defense of Avante Group Inc. against nursing home negligence and wrongful death claims on behalf of the Ernesto Vazquez estate.

The law firm quickly trumpeted its victory on its Web site (www.mccumberinclan.com). It was especially welcome news for the Tampa attorneys who are mired in litigation with the Miami law firm it spun off from in September.

Then came bad news. About 10 days after the appellate decision, the firm received a letter from Piper Rudnick attorney Mercedes G. Hale. As the representative for McCumber Inclan's landlord, Laurel Place Ltd., Hale gave the 12 attorneys in the Tampa office four days to vacate 5102 W. Laurel St. or face eviction.

The firm's outside counsel, Addison & Delano partner Caryl Delano, filed a declaratory action for temporary and permanent injunctions in the 13th Circuit against the landlord and Quintairos Prieto Wood & Boyer PA, the Miami law firm that McCumber Inclan once was part of. The Tampa firm claims protection under a sublease agreement negotiated last fall as part of a settlement with Quintairos Prieto during the early stages of their business separation. It is a bitter dispute that has cascaded into all-out war in the state and federal courts.

Because of scheduling conflicts, Circuit Judge William P. Levens rescheduled a hearing on McCumber Inclan's declaratory request until later this month. But there appears no end in sight to the litigation that Andrew McCumber, the Tampa managing partner, initiated last October in the 13th Circuit, where he filed for an involuntary dissolution of what was Quintairos McCumber Prieto Wood & Boyer PA.

The reason for the split last fall seemed simple enough. The partners who formed Quintairos McCumber in 1998 no longer agreed on operational matters. The principal partners - McCumber and Miami lawyers Edward C. Prieto and Hugh L. Wood - then joined to oust partner George Quintairos. But disagreements erupted among McCumber, Prieto and Wood.

So McCumber resigned in late September and announced his intent to form a new law firm in Tampa. He also wanted an immediate payout on his 20% ownership stake in the Miami law firm. This is where the allegations get murky. Quintairos, Prieto and Wood apparently settled their differences. Then they accused McCumber of inciting dissent among the firm's employees. They also accused McCumber of trying to steal clients. Those are all accusations McCumber denies and attributes to Quintairos Prieto's efforts to derail his payout.

That's when McCumber filed the dissolution action in Tampa. Then Quintairos Prieto filed a counterclaim, accusing McCumber and the Tampa firm of breach of fiduciary duty and tortuous interference with the Miami firm's employees and its clients.

By mid-October, the two sides reached a settlement agreement over the dissolution action. The Miami partners agreed to advance McCumber $750,000 on his 20% ownership, with the remaining value payable at a later date. The Tampa firm also would assume full responsibility for the lease on the Laurel Street property.

The settlement quickly unraveled, however, with letters flying back and forth between Delano and A. Brian Albritton, a Holland & Knight LLP attorney representing Quintairos Prieto. McCumber wanted to offset lease costs from the amount still owed on his share in the Miami firm. But the Miami partners said they never agreed to an offset and considered it a breach of contract if McCumber didn't sign the lease.

Two days later the Miami firm sought an emergency motion to hold the Tampa firm in contempt of the settlement agreement. Circuit Judge Claudia Isom, who presided over the settlement hearings, deferred a ruling and ordered the Tampa firm to pay the outstanding balance on the lease and a pro rata share of the security deposit.

By early December, tensions worsened. The Tampa firm sought an emergency motion to hold the Miami firm in contempt of the settlement order. That apparently infuriated the Miami partners.

Within two days of the Tampa firm's motion, the Miami partners filed a federal lawsuit in the Tampa division of the U.S. District Court. Along with charges of contract violations, the Miami firm accused the Tampa firm of tampering with password-protected computer servers. Those are allegations the Tampa firm denies.

Nine days later the Tampa firm resurrected the involuntary dissolution action by filing an amended complaint in state court. Seven days later the Miami firm again asked Isom to hold the Tampa firm in contempt of the settlement agreement.

In late January, Isom delivered bad news to the Tampa firm. She found probable cause McCumber Inclan violated the settlement agreement stated in her Oct. 23 court order. She then ordered the Tampa firm to appear on March 31 to show cause why they should not be found in contempt. And she also denied the Tampa firm's motion to find the Miami firm in contempt.

But the dissolution action never made it to the March 31 docket for a couple of reasons. First, Isom recused herself from the matter, since the Tampa firm had hired Tampa attorney John Duval Johnson as additional legal counsel. Johnson is a co-tenant with Isom's husband, Tampa attorney Woody Isom. Then the case went to Circuit Judge James D. Arnold. But Arnold recused himself when he discovered a possible conflict with one of the attorneys in the case.

Not much happened in either the state or federal lawsuits until mid-May, when the Miami firm filed an amended complaint in federal court. That complaint restated allegations that McCumber Inclan violated the Stored Communications Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It also restated allegations over the central contract dispute.

Earlier this month the Tampa firm filed a motion in federal court asking U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday to dismiss the amended complaint. The Tampa firm accused the Miami lawyers of "forum shopping" in an effort to controvert McCumber Inclan's state court action.

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