- September 30, 2011
Cody Fowler Davis walks in big footsteps - those left by his grandfather, Cody Fowler, one of the founders of Tampa's Fowler White law firm.
By David R. Corder
Cody Fowler's words resonate with his grandchildren, even 26 years after this death.
Give back. Never give up. Stay strong.
The grandchildren - Tampa attorney Cody Fowler Davis, Congressman Jim Davis and their sister, conservationist Kimberly Davis - aren't likely to forget his words. They have letters their grandfather wrote to each of them before his death.
"If you can picture this, these are sealed envelopes," says grandson Cody Fowler Davis. "One is to open if you think you're going to law school. The second is you've completed law school, and now you're thinking about becoming a lawyer. All of those letters stressed a civic duty, giving back to the community and the profession."
To an extent, Davis, 44, walks in his grandfather's footsteps, not that he necessarily planned it that way. Cody Fowler earned historical recognition in Tampa for his civil rights advocacy, dating back to the late 1920s. As a personal injury and civil law attorney, the grandson champions the rights of individuals against big business. And like his grandfather, he has ventured into areas such as banking and real estate development.
"I never thought of it as following in my grandfather's footsteps exactly, but I did want to get involved in banking because of my grandfather," he says. "I also had helped run some of his real estate ventures in the past."
Besides his work as president of Davis & Harmon PA, Davis became a board member last year at the newly formed Palm Bank. He also is working on a commercial renovation project in the city's Channelside District with Finn Caspersen, one of the guiding influences in the development of Tampa's Harbour Island.
"I think it makes you a better lawyer to be involved in banking and development," he says.
Davis' family roots run deep in the Tampa Bay area. Around a century ago, his great-grandmother Maude Fowler and her family traveled from Oklahoma and settled in Temple Terrace. She later gained prominence as a real estate developer. Fowler Avenue commemorates her work in the Hillsborough County community.
It's no wonder Davis chose law as a profession, considering his grandfather's legacy. Cody Fowler co-founded what is now the largest law firm in Tampa, Fowler White Boggs Banker PA. He was the first local lawyer elected president of the American Bar Association. He also served two terms as president of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Over the years, he also earned a reputation as a maverick, Davis says. Fowler's fight against racial injustice and inequality dates to his early days as a lawyer. In the book, "Born to Rebel: An Autobiography," Benjamin E. Mays, executive director of the Tampa Urban League from 1926-28, describes an instance when Fowler represented a black woman charged with vehicular manslaughter in the death of a white educator.
"Judge (W. Raleigh) Pettiway told us as a judge he could not recommend a lawyer, but he did give us a lead by saying, 'If I were on trial for murder, I would get Attorney Cody Fowler to defend me,' " Mays writes.
Years later Tampa Mayor Julian Lane appointed Fowler as head of the city's Biracial Committee, according to historical press accounts. In the late 1950s, the committee worked with black activists and local merchants to peacefully remove barriers to entry.
"(Cody Fowler) was very much ahead of his time among whites in Tampa in supporting racial equality," says University of Tampa professor Robert J. Kerstein, who also mentions him as a prominent lawyer in his book, "Politics and Growth in 20th Century Tampa."
Davis remembers adventures with his grandfather. There was a trip to an ABA meeting in San Francisco, meetings with lawyers in New York City. He recalls eating lunch in the chambers of then Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger at the U.S. Supreme Court.
"He was a unique guy, no doubt about it," he says about his grandfather.
"He took a very strong interest in my tennis, because he played tennis, too," Davis recalls. "When I played matches around the state, he would come and watch. He wanted my brother, sister and I to be involved. But there was pressure that came with that, too."
At Tampa Jesuit High School, Davis excelled as a tennis player and earned recognition as a national prospect. Then fate interceded. He developed melanoma, a form of skin cancer, on his tennis arm. The rehabilitation temporarily scuttled opportunities for athletic scholarships. Instead, he joined his older brother at Washington and Lee University.
"I was at Jesuit when he fought the disease," says former schoolmate and Tampa attorney Henry E. Valenzuela. "I've really never forgotten his battle with that disease at such an early age. His ability to defeat the cancer has no doubt had a positive impact on how he goes about living his life. When you beat cancer, you come out of that living your life in a very positive fashion."
After a year at the Lexington, Va., college, Davis transferred to Vanderbilt University and resumed his athletic career. During his senior year, he ranked as the school's No. 1 tennis player. Then he entered law school, earning a degree in 1984 from Florida State University.
For the next 13 years or so, Davis worked at what is now Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen PA. In early 1998, he joined with Tampa attorney Thomas P. Scarritt Jr. to form Davis & Scarritt PA. About three years later they dissolved the partnership.
Scarritt, who has known Davis since law school, says the partners separated amicably to pursue different goals. Davis says he still considers Scarritt a friend. One word comes to Scarritt's mind when asked to describe his former partner's litigation style - persistency. "He is tenacious," he says. "Once he gets into something, he just never lets go."
In April 2001, Davis and former Fowler White attorney Tom Harmon founded Davis & Harmon with a focus on personal injury and civil law. Valeria Hendricks, a former staff attorney for the 2nd District Court of Appeal, later joined as a partner. They also hired three associate attorneys - Steve Parker, Kevin Woods and Andrew Speranzini.
Since its formation, the law firm has obtained about $65 million in plaintiff settlements or verdicts. That figure includes the $40.5 million wrongful death verdict an Alachua County jury rendered in May 2002 against an employee of the Florida Department of Children and Families. The jury found the worker liable for the deaths of three disabled women who died in a van crash.
The law firm's clients currently include a vicarious liability claim against the Orlando law firm of Morgan Colling & Gilbert, according to public records. An employee, who has since settled out of court for $100,000, purportedly caused an auto wreck about two years ago in Manatee County, which resulted in the death of one woman and injuries to the Davis & Harmon client. The vicarious liability claim against the Orlando law firm is still pending, however.
Citing client confidentiality concerns, Davis says he doesn't talk about pending litigation. "Cases should be resolved in the courtroom and not the newspapers," he says.
Unlike most personal injury law firms, Davis & Harmon also represents defendants, as long as there's not a conflict.
"We've found (the practice) to be a very big advantage," Davis says. "I tell our clients, 'You're going to be much better protected because we know both sides of the fence.' "
Although not an uncommon practice, Valenzuela says Davis & Harmon is one of the few local law firms that successfully represent both plaintiffs and defendants. "There are not many law firms that can successfully do that," he says.
Valenzuela, who represents only plaintiffs, attributes such ability to Davis' leadership. "He's a very intelligent and clever attorney, who understands not only the legal aspects of cases but also the practical implications," he says. "Very few lawyers have the ability to combine those elements. That gives him the unique ability to negotiate cases in an astute fashion."
Last year, Davis helped organize Palm Bank, a community bank devoted almost exclusively to South Tampa.
Again, Davis attributes his interest in banking to his grandfather, who founded Tampa's Freedom Savings & Loan. The grandfather no longer served on the S&L's board by the time the institution foundered in the late 1980s. Fowler's role in Tampa banking helped the grandson.
"One of the things that really attracted us to Cody is his reputation in the law field, and the fact he wanted to be on the board, and expressed a strong desire to get involved in the financial industry, since his grandfather started Freedom Savings," says Chris Anderson, Palm Bank's president and chief executive officer. "There is heritage there."
Davis also takes an active role as a board member. "When I give out a board package, I can count on Cody reading it from front to back," Anderson says. "He's not afraid to speak his mind. Because of his reputation, when Cody talks, the rest of the board listens."
In December, Davis and Caspersen, as managing partners, acquired a 24,300-square-foot warehouse in the Channelside District in a cash deal valued at $900,000. They plan to invest another $1.6 million to renovate it into prime office space with the latest technology has to offer. The law firm will use about 8,500 square feet of space in the building and lease out the rest.
"We're doing a lot of research into all of the new technology," Davis says. "Anything that will give our clients an advantage will be in that building."
The managing partners also offered ownership interests to all other members of the firm. "The lawyers here all have an interest in the building, even the associates," he says. "The deal was made from the ownership group. I said, 'All the lawyers can buy into it.' They did. We're all in it together. It was great that everyone got involved. They obviously believe in the future of the firm and the future of the building."
Davis enthusiastically talks about redevelopment opportunities in the Channelside District. Besides regular visits to the community, he often stops to introduce himself to neighboring property owners. "About half the time I leave work I drive through Channelside," he says. "I'm excited about the area. It's the best thing to happen to Tampa right now."
That enthusiasm might translate into additional interests in Channelside. "I would like to identify some more properties downtown, but as of this time I haven't started on that venture," he says.
As busy as he is, Davis finds time to help his brother who will be running for re-election in November. Fund-raising is on his mind.
In one of his rare, slower moments, Davis reflects on his grandfather's work and life. He wonders what his grandfather would think about all that has happened since his death in 1978. He thinks he knows.
Says Davis: "He would sit back and say, 'What your brother has done is nothing short of incredible, what your sister has done is fantastic and, Cody, you're doing OK for yourself.' "
Cody Fowler Davis
Position: President of Davis & Harmon PA
Personal: Married to Beth, 20 years. They have four daughters, Elizabeth, 19; Mary-Patton, 15, Caroline, 12; and Cody, 8.
Education: BA, Vanderbilt University; JD, Florida State University School of Law.
Law firm mantra: "We deliver personal, individual service. We're trial lawyers who actually do trials."
Favorite place: Channelside entertainment complex
Favorite place to eat: Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
Where do you go for fun? Family trips to Useppa Island, Bokeelia, in Southwest Florida.
What's the last book you read for relaxation: "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.