Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Florida Attorney Loses Bar Ticket, Gets 10 Years Prison Time For Snatching Approx.$1.5 Million Of Surplus Proceeds From Foreclosure Sales Belonging To Booted Ex-Homeowners; Loot Represented Victim's Accumulated Home Equity

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports:
  • A former Coconut Creek lawyer began serving a 10-year state prison term [] for stealing more than a million dollars from property owners who'd lost homes in foreclosure transactions in 11 Florida counties, authorities said.

    "There is no excuse for my behavior," said Nicholas Steffens, 37, as he read a statement to Broward Circuit Criminal Court Judge Michael I. Rothschild.

    In March, Steffens pleaded no contest to five counts of grand theft as part of his negotiated sentence.

    Steffens stole approximately $1.5 million over three years from about 50 people who owned homes in Florida, including in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Assistant State Attorney David Schulson said.(1)

    Some victims have yet to file claims or have not yet been located or have died, and next of kin have not been found, he said.

    When a foreclosed property was sold, sometimes a portion of those proceeds, called surplus mortgage foreclosure funds, were owed to the former homeowners. Steffens was entrusted to find those persons and pay them what they were due.

    "He made absolutely zero effort to locate anyone and stole the surplus money," Schulson said. "The most outrageous thing is he did it all over the state. He disgraced the legal profession."
    ***
    Present to hear the judge sentence Steffens to a decade behind bars, 20 years' probation and to make full restitution to victims was Carmen Barbara of Pembroke Pines. She was owed $12,717, according to a court document.

    "In the past two or three years, I lost my husband, I lost my house and then I found out that this happened," Barbara said. "That's what I find the most heart wrenching, is that he was taking advantage of people at their worst possible times, when they lost their homes."
    ***
    The Florida Bar said in February that the State Supreme Court granted Steffens' request for a disciplinary revocation of his license, which is equivalent to disbarment.

    Schulson said anyone who thinks they may be a victim should call him at 954-831-8056.
For the story, see Former lawyer surrenders for 10 year prison term for theft of $1.5 million.

See, generally, Frederick Miller, "If You Can't Trust Your Lawyer .... ?", 138 Univ. of Pennsylvania Law Rev. 785 (1990) for more on the apparent, long-standing tolerance for deceit by many in the legal profession:
  • This tolerance to deception is encouraged by the profession's institutional civility. Seldom is a fig called a fig, or a shyster a shyster. No, our euphemisms are wonderfully polite: "frivolous conduct," or a "lack of candor;" or "law-office failure;" or, heaven forbid, a "peculation," a "defalcation," or a "negative balance" in a law firms's trust account.

    There is also widespread reluctance on the part of lawyers --- again, some lawyers --- to discuss publicly, much less acknowledge, that they have colleagues who engage in deceit and unprofessional conduct.

    This reluctance is magnified when the brand of deceit involves the theft of client money and property, notwithstanding that most lawyers would agree that stealing from clients is the ultimate ethical transgression. [...] The fact is, however, that theft of client property is not an insignificant or isolated problem within the legal profession. Indeed, it is a hounding phenomenon nationwide, and probably the principal reason why most lawyers nationwide are disbarred from the practice of law.
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(1) The Clients' Security Fund was created by The Florida Bar to help compensate persons who have suffered a loss of money or property due to misappropriation or embezzlement by a Florida-licensed attorney.

For similar "attorney ripoff reimbursement funds" that sometimes help cover the financial mess created by the dishonest conduct of lawyers licensed in other states and Canada, see:
Maps available courtesy of The National Client Protection Organization, Inc.

See generally:
  • N.Y. fund for cheated clients wants thieving lawyers disbarred, a July, 2015 Associated Press story on this Fund reporting that the Fund's executive director, among other things, is calling for prompt referral to the local district attorney when the disciplinary committee has uncontested evidence of theft by a lawyer injuring a client or an admission of culpability;

    When Lawyers Steal the Escrow, a June, 2005 New York Times story describing some cases of client reimbursements ("With real estate business surging and down-payment amounts rising with home prices, the temptation for a lawyer to filch money from a bulging escrow account and later repay it with other clients' money has never been greater, said lawyers who monitor the thefts."),

    Thieving Lawyers Draining Client Security Funds, a December, 1991 New York Times story that gives some-real life examples of how client security funds deal with claims and the pressures the administrators of those funds may feel when left insufficiently financed as a result of the misconduct of a handful of lawyer/scoundrels.

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