In an August, 2010 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court gave what appears to be a well-deserved boot to now-former attorney Sherry Grant Hall from the legal profession in the state for her conduct in connection with a failed attempt to egregiously arm-twist an elderly married couple, Irving and Clara Godwin (Irving suffered from Alzheimer's disease), into selling property that they had been leasing to her.(1)
Her actions culminated by forging the Godwins' signatures on a phony real estate purchase contract and recording it in the public records
, thereby creating a cloud on the Godwin's title and sabotaging their efforts to sell the property to other interested parties.
Some of the notable points in this case were:
- There was no formal attorney-client relationship between the parties. Hall was engaged in a personal transaction with the Godwins that was unrelated to her legal practice in which no professional services were offered and no legal fees were involved. Thus, the misconduct was in her personal capacity, not in her professional capacity;
- Hall had been a member of The Florida Bar since 1986 and had no prior disciplinary history,
- The court rejected the recommendation of the referee to dish out only a 90-day suspension, finding that disbarment was the only appropriate sanction.
Some of the facts of the case:
- Hall began misrepresenting to Mrs. Godwin that their original lease agreement, which contained an agreement to negotiate a possible sale was actually an agreement to sell the property to Hall;
- Shortly thereafter, the Godwins felt compelled to retain an attorney to fend off Hall's continued misrepresentations;
- Despite being told that, according to the advice of her newly-retained attorney that she was not required to sell Hall the property under the Lease Agreement, Hall continued to harass Mrs. Godwin about selling her property;
- The Godwin's daughter testified that Hall threatened to sue the Godwins and tie them up in court, insinuating that they could lose their property from protracted litigation, and insisting that the Godwins had to sell the property to her;
- After Mrs. Godwin decided to list her property for sale with a real estate agent, Hall continued her misconduct—by seeking to drive away any possible contenders for the property. She wrote a letter to the real estate agent misrepresenting to him that she had a contract with the Godwins to purchase their property. The real estate agent testified that Hall threatened to report him to the real estate commission and have his license revoked if he sold the Godwins’ property;
- Finally, Hall forged the Godwins' signature on a phony real estate purchase contract and recorded it in the public records, and sent it to the Godwins' attorney, stating that the Godwins were obligated to sell the property to her.
In reaching its ruling to boot Hall from the legal profession in the state, the Florida high court made the following observations about her conduct (bold text is my emphasis, not in the original text):
- Respondent’s brazen misrepresentations and continual harassment distinguish this case from other forgery cases. Although the referee found only one rule violation, Respondent’s misconduct is egregious.
Her misrepresentations caused the Godwins to lose two buyers for their property. Respondent’s threats to the Godwin’s realtor caused him to withdraw the Godwins real estate listing.
Due to Respondent’s continued harassment, the Godwins were forced to hire an attorney to defend themselves.
Even though Respondent was not acting in a formal attorney-client relationship, she was still a member of The Florida Bar and bound by its ethical rules.
Respondent misused her status as an attorney to harm the Godwins: (1) by recording the fraudulent document in the clerk’s office, in order to tie up the Godwins’ property; (2) by asserting that the Godwins and their realtor would suffer for not complying with her legal claims; and (3) by forcing the Godwins to hire counsel to resolve the legal problems that Respondent created.
Even after being informed that the Godwins had hired counsel, Respondent continued to directly harass them. This Court does not look favorably on those who use their standing as an officer of the court to deliberately harm others—especially when they intentionally hurt members of the public for their own personal gain.
Further, in the instant case, Mr. and Mrs. Godwin were seniors, and Mr. Godwin was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Respondent was preying upon this vulnerable couple.
Respondent put pressure on the Godwins by sending letters, making phone calls, and visiting them, in an effort to achieve her goal of purchasing the property. Further, Respondent continuously misrepresented to third parties that she had a contract for sale, when she knew, or should have known as an attorney, that she had no contractual right to purchase the Godwins’ property. Based on this evidence, the referee orally pronounced from the bench that Respondent "violated the rules of the Bar by harassing lots of people."
Further, Respondent deliberately and intentionally engaged in felonious conduct by recording the fraudulent Lease Agreement and Agreement for Sale in the county clerk’s office. As a lawyer, Respondent knew or should have known that the recording of this instrument in the clerk’s office was a felony (uttering a forged document).(2) By the terms of the original agreed-upon paragraph, Respondent should have known that she did not have an agreement to purchase the land.
Nevertheless, Respondent recorded the fraudulent document in the clerk’s office to misrepresent to the public at large that she had a right to purchase the Godwins’ property. By recording the fraudulent document, Respondent placed a cloud on the title of the property she desired, which impeded the Godwins from selling or transferring the property to anyone else. It is apparent that Respondent committed these misdeeds for her own benefit, in an effort to secure the property.
For the ruling, see The Florida Bar v. Hall, No. SC07-863, 2010 Fla. LEXIS 1406; 35 Fla. L. Weekly S 458 (August 26, 2010).
(1) The court described Hall's conduct as a "lengthy process of harassment and abuse of the legal system" and said that she "purposefully used her knowledge of the law to harm others, for her own personal benefit."
(2) For those wondering if there were any criminal charges brought against Hall for manufacturing the bogus real estate purchase contract, forging the Godwins' signatures thereto, and recording the dubious document in the public records, the ruling notes Hall's successful effort to buy her way out of a criminal conviction in this excerpt:
- The State Attorney’s Office charged Respondent with two felonies—grand theft and uttering a forged instrument (the fraudulent recording of the Lease Agreement and Agreement for Sale).
In August 2006, Respondent entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) in which she agreed, among other things, to (1) quitclaim any interest in the Godwins’ property to give them clear title to the property within forty-eight hours of signing the agreement; (2) pay the Godwins $15,000 in restitution; (3) acknowledge in writing that the existing lease between Respondent and the Godwins was null and void; (4) vacate the pasture land and relinquish any rights she might have had under the lease; (5) execute any documents necessary to eliminate any cloud on the title of the Godwins’ property resulting from the lease; and (6) ensure that all sub-tenants or other persons occupying the pasture under Respondent’s lease would vacate the property.
In September 2006, the criminal charges were dismissed because Respondent had complied with the requirements of the DPA.