Winning the War
These are changing times for the president of South Tampa's Scarritt Law Group, a trial lawyer known for his no-holds-barred style.
By David R. Corder
Tom Scarritt understands the consequence. His decision to accept a voluntary job as chairman of a newly formed watchdog group means he can no longer publicly support his favorite judicial candidates. That's a sacrifice for this politically active Tampa lawyer who managed Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kevin Carey's election campaign nearly two years ago and who has financially backed the bids of several other judicial candidates.
It also means more visibility for this trial lawyer who spent the past few years not only building a successful law practice but also acquiring a considerable business portfolio that includes investments in a South Tampa bank and several single-family and multifamily properties. Just recently he acquired a partnership interest in the Beef O'Brady's restaurant across from the St. Petersburg Times Forum in the city's rapidly evolving Channelside District.
These are changing times for the president of South Tampa's Scarritt Law Group PA, a lawyer known among his peers for his no-holds-barred style of litigation. While Scarritt still zealously represents his clients, he now better understands the benefits of developing professional relationships with opposing counsels. His entrepreneurial bent has tempered his tough litigation style.
"What I've found is that sometimes I would win the battle and lose the war," says Scarritt, 47. "In other words, I might win every motion and the jury trial, but I alienated the opposing lawyer and, perhaps, even sometimes the judge in the process, when it was completely unnecessary.
"So I learned I could better serve my clients' needs by working with opposing counsel to find common ground so that we could learn when to respectfully disagree with one another," he adds. "It's really a transformation that I think the entire trial bar needs to undergo. Some of the trial lawyers I admire the most are incredibly polite, never raise their voices and know how to choose their battles."
Change didn't always come easy for Scarritt, who developed a solid reputation as a successful litigator during 14 years at Tampa's Fowler White Boggs Banker PA.
In late 1997, Scarritt joined with Tampa attorney Cody Fowler Davis to form Davis & Scarritt PA. The two had known each other for years from the close-knit South Tampa community. Besides common bonds as lawyers, they also shared other interests.
Both partners devoted considerable energies to help Davis' brother, Jim Davis, win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. It's a relationship built on more than partisan politics. The Tampa Democratic congressman is also a godfather to Scarritt's 13-year-old son, Mac. Scarritt's 17-year-old daughter, Mallory, is a congressional page.
After a few years, however, Cody Davis and Scarritt came to a crossroad. Around the middle of 2000, they decided to split to pursue other interests. Although still friends, the partners weathered a difficult time heavily influenced by the then-upheaval in the national markets.
"We were making lots of money, dumping it in the stock market and losing it," Scarritt says. "I wanted a little more flexibility to practice law and pursue other investments. We really went at it, though, and developed a lot of respect for one another."
The transformation paid off as Scarritt ventured out on his own. Like his former partner, Scarritt, too, acquired a minority interest in Palm Bank, a community bank formed in 2002 that reported total assets of $45.9 million as of Dec. 31, 2003.
Meanwhile, Scarritt ventured into other more secure investments. He scoured South Tampa for residential real estate investment opportunities.
Last year, Scarritt Enterprises LLC acquired two, four-unit multifamily properties for $730,000 on West Estrella Street. He recently discovered how good a deal he negotiated. While shopping for additional investments, he discovered another identical four-unit building for sale in the same neighborhood - only the owner wants $750,000 for the one building.
To the south, in Charlotte County, Scarritt Enterprises invested in a 47-unit, town home-venture in Boca Grande, which has an estimated build-out value of between $20 million to $25 million.
About two years ago, Scarritt and Tampa businessman Greg Tear agreed to underwrite the construction of a Beef O'Brady's restaurant for Tampa jeweler Kevin Burns and Tampa developer Andrew Hupp.
Earlier this year, Hupp opted out of the partnership. Hupp asked Scarritt and Tear if they would be interested in a partnership with Burns. "I said, 'Only if you can get the land next to (the Beef O'Brady's),' " Scarritt recalls. They bought the land, converted the loans and formed the new partnership.
Burns, a principal in Tampa-based Kevin Burns Estate Buyers and Associated Watch & Jewelry Buyers Inc., met Scarritt years ago through their wives. "We got friendly playing tennis," Burns says. "He's as competitive a player as you'll find."
"We have a lot of the same interests," Burns adds. "We're kind of on the opposite ends of the political scale. Now that he owns his own business I think he's smartening up. We would be friends even if we weren't business partners. Hopefully, we're friends as business partners."
Much of that friendship is built on Burns' admiration for the Scarritts' participation in the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. The Scarritts twice won the Big Brother/Big Sister Couple of the Year award from the Tampa Bay chapter.
Even though Tom Scarritt made a positive difference in a young person's life, Burns recalls his friend telling the audience at the chapter's dinner a personal story about a family member who had just made a wrong choice in life and the lament Scarritt felt about not being able to do anything about it.
"In reality, he had taken a kid who had absolutely nothing," Burns says. "Tommy showed him right from wrong. On the other hand, he felt as if he was a failure. I'll always remember that. Sometimes you only hear the success stories. He's one of the 10% of the people who do 90% of the volunteer work."
Since 1993, Scarritt has represented the volunteer group's board as its legal counsel.
Success from failure
Scarritt is also somewhat of a romantic. He studied English literature at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. It's where he met his wife, Linda. It's also where he met Andrew Lytle, a now-late Southern writer revered by the university's students, professors and authors such as Robert Penn Warren ("All The King's Men").
Each year Lytle rented a room in his 100-year-old mountain cabin in Monteagle, Tenn., to an aspiring literary student. Scarritt earned that honor one year. He still cherishes the days he spent in Lytle's class and the times talking with the author while sitting on his front porch.
"He wanted me to stay and write," Scarritt recalls. "He was horrified when he learned that I wanted to become a trial lawyer."
Scarritt's skills as a storyteller are legendary among his friends, says longtime friend Kevin Carey. "He's a wonderful storyteller, and the facts may or may not be important," he says, jokingly.
The two ironically met through Scarritt's childhood friend, Tallahassee attorney Stephen C. Emmanuel. While Scarritt attended the Florida State University School of Law, Emmanuel became friends with Carey at the University of Florida School of Law. The friendship cross-pollinated.
Carey also is godfather to Scarritt's son. "We've been very close," Carey says. "Our families are close. I have a lot of respect for him."
Scarritt's experiences at Sewanee only reinforced his desire for more diversity. It accounts for why he spent a half a year at the London School of Economics in England. He also spent about a year in France at the University of Grenoble on a Rotary Club International graduate fellowship.
Those experiences formed the foundation for the next phase of his life as an FSU law school student. There he served as chief justice of the university's Student Supreme Court and as staff editor of the Law Review.
Following law school, Scarritt joined the predecessor of what is now Fowler White Boggs Banker. He was assigned to appellate attorney Chris Altenbernd, now chief justice of the 2nd District Court of Appeal. It was Altenbernd who taught Scarritt his most important lesson as a first-year associate.
"One of my first projects came back as if it had been shot and bled all over," Scarritt recalls. "We were under a deadline. So he had to take it back and redo it himself. He was none too pleased about it. I received visits from some angry partners. They said, 'Chris Altenbernd was not a person to get on the wrong side with.' "
Scarritt says he made a commitment that day. "For 30 days, and I counted them, I did not see the light of day and became best friends on a first-name basis with all the (nighttime) office maintenance workers," he says. "But it worked, and I was able to write a brief that looked like someone had only cut their finger on it - just a little bit of red ink."
That earned Scarritt a measure of confidence from the firm's partners. He promised himself he would never settle for anything else but excellence.
"During the first three years I was there, I tried five jury trials in five weeks," he says. "I wouldn't be telling you this story if I hadn't won them all."
Within five years, Scarritt had worked as lead counsel on more than 20 trials. That pace earned him a membership in the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA).
By 1989, he had earned board certification as a civil trial attorney from the Florida Bar. The National Board of Trail Advocacy awarded him board certification in 1991.
Two years later, the Tampa Bay chapter of ABOTA elected him as one of its youngest presidents.
Later Scarritt became a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a trade group that recognizes trial attorneys who win million-dollar verdicts, awards or settlements. It recognized him for three settlements with an estimated value of more than $1 million each.
Of those three, Scarritt takes the greatest satisfaction from the work he did for property owners Lee and Nancy Hanna, an elderly couple stuck with land contaminated by a neighbor, Ashland Chemical Co. Scarritt secured a $1.7 million settlement from Ashland Inc.
Over the years, Scarritt also successfully defended high-profile clients such as Donald Vesley, a psychiatrist sued by a former client who became his lover and then an employee. Scarritt won Vesley an acquittal following a two-week jury trial. The former employee sought damages in excess of $5 million.
In 1996, though, he embarked on one of his most challenging jobs - co-counsel for Oshkosh Truck Corp. in defense of a $17 million claim made by Chiquita Brands International Inc.
Scarritt and co-counsel Steve Burton, who now works in the Tampa office of Broad & Cassel, spent the better part of a year in New York City defending their client in federal arbitration hearings. To complicate the job, Scarritt still carried a heavy caseload in the Tampa courts.
"In the midst of that arbitration, Steve Burton convinced me to start my own law firm; like I needed something else to do," Scarritt recalls. "Now I was around 40 at the time. I didn't want the red convertible or the mistress, so I opted for the new law firm."
The pair scored a major victory for their client, when Chiquita settled.
"The law firm got launched successfully," Scarritt says. "We won all the trials being tried in Tampa. And Chiquita gave up in the arbitration after a year and accepted a million dollars in settlement, when more than that would have been offered at the very beginning. Everything worked out."
While working on Carey's judicial campaign, Scarritt met John Dingfelder, a former Carey colleague at Carlton Fields PA. Dingfelder asked Scarritt to help him with his 2002 bid for the Hillsborough County Commission.
"He asked me if I would support him before I knew the other candidate," Scarritt says. The other candidate was Kathy Castor, the eventual winner. Scarritt's wife, Linda, a life-long Democrat, worked on Castor's campaign.
Dingfelder and Castor signs sprouted simultaneously in the Scarritts' front yard. "My neighbors surely though we were a little confused," he says, with a laugh.
It didn't stop there. Clay Phillips, Jim Davis' former chief of staff, sought Scarritt's help with a bid last year for Tampa City Council. "The next day John (Dingfelder) came to me and said he tossed his name into the hat," Scarritt says. "I said, 'John, You're killing me.' "
Not only did Dingfelder win the election but he also joined the Scarritt Law Group. He splits his time now between the law firm and the city council. His hiring brought a new perspective to one of Scarritt's long-time clients - the Florida League of Cities, the largest self-insured pool of Florida cities and towns. For the past 20 years, the group has relied on Scarritt to represent member communities in claims involving civil rights, false arrests and class actions claims.
"They like that, because John can look them in the eye and say, 'I can feel your pain,' " Scarritt says.
Earlier this year, Carey offered Scarritt an unusual opportunity. The county judge had concerns about judicial campaign practices. Carey asked his friend to join a Hillsborough County Bar Association task force researching the matter. Scarritt accepted.
The two traveled to Dallas where they participated in a seminar sponsored by the National Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Judicial Campaign Conduct, a group affiliated with the National Center for State Courts. The ad hoc committee encourages the formation of local watchdog committees as a means to improve the integrity of judicial elections.
Although they're in the early stages of the formation, the current task force members recommended Scarritt as chairman of what will become the Hillsborough County Judicial Campaign Practices Committee. He accepted.
"The purpose of this committee is to enhance public confidence in the integrity of judicial campaigns," he says. "The function of the committee will be to field complaints concerning rule violations during the judicial election cycle, allow the accused to respond quickly and to issue an opinion quickly as to whether a violation has occurred. That opinion will then be shared with all appropriate legal organizations and the media."
Thomas P. Scarritt Jr.
Firm: Scarritt Law Group PA and Scarritt Enterprises LLC
Hometown: Pensacola. A sixth-generation Floridian, he relocated in 1983 to Tampa following law school.
Personal: Married for 20 years to Linda. Three children: Mallory, 17; Mac, 15; and Lucy, 11.
Education: BA, University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn.; JD, Florida State University College of Law. During 1977, he studied at the London School of Economics. In 1980-81, he studied at the University of Grenoble, France, under a Rotary Club International graduate fellowship.
Career: Shareholder, Fowler White Boggs Banker, 1983-97; president, Davis & Scarritt PA, 1997-2001.
Favorite place in the Tampa Bay area: Bayshore Boulevard. It's where he taught his children how to ride bicycles and where he jogs three times a week.
Favorite place to eat: Mise en Place, Tampa.
Last book read for relaxation: "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," by Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon.
Guiding philosophy: "Always pursue excellence, and everything else will take care of itself. If you don't want to tell your mother about it, don't do it."