The Florida State Bar is seeking sanctions against a partner with a prominent New Orleans area law firm, alleging that she used deceptive tactics to solicit clients after Hurricane Ian.
The bar on Thursday filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court asking for an emergency suspension of the law licensed issued to Jennifer Perez, a partner with Gauthier, Murphy & Houghtaling. The Bar’s pleading states that GM&H parked a truck in the parking lot of the Riverview Inn, a closed motel in North Fort Myers, and staffed it with a “non-lawyer” who admitted to investigators that it was “generally misperceived” as belonging to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA had been participating in an “insurance village” that the Florida Department of Financial Services set up in Fort Myers and Port Charlotte to assist hurricane victims. No attorneys are allowed in those centers.
“Information about the Louisiana law firm was deliberately obscured on respondent’s ‘Mobile Claim Center’ to create the impression that the truck is part of FEMA or the state-run insurance village, giving the Louisiana law firm the opportunity to solicit hurricane victims,” the petition says.
The Bar’s petition includes a photo of what appears to be a fifth-wheel trailer (although it is described as a truck) and an attached air-conditioned tent. A sheet of black plastic covers the name of the law firm, but does not obscure the firm’s Louisiana telephone number.
“The Louisiana law firm website deliberately includes the defunct motel address to create the impression that it has a bona fide law office in Florida,” the petition says.
After being contacted by the Claims Journal, Perez issued this statement:
“The law firm looks forward to clearing up a grave misunderstanding as our facility was only used as a meeting space for existing corporate clients,” she said in an email. “We did not solicit, accept, or sign-up walk-in clients at the claims office and turned away people who were not part of our corporate client group. The law firm also placed a sign stating that the facility was not a FEMA office to clear up any doubt and called the Florida Bar’s Hotline to discuss the use of our facility and were not told that we were violating any Florida Bar Rules. We look forward to working with The Florida Bar and resolving the matter.”
The Bar’s petition includes affidavits by staff investigators Karen Brown and John Berrena.
Berrena said when he visited the site on Oct. 18 he encountered a man who identified himself as Sergio Alvardo, who is not an attorney or paralegal. Alvarado told Berrena that people who walked into the tent thought it was a FEMA center. When asked if there were any attorneys on site, Alvarado identified John Houghtaling, a partner in the law firm who has an office in Metairie, Louisiana, the affidavit says.
Houghtaling may be best known to readers of the Claims Journal as the attorney who filed the first-ever lawsuit seeking coverage for business-interruption losses caused by COVID-19. He won a rare appellate court victory in favor of his client, a New Orleans seafood restaurant.
Berrena said he called Houghtaling’s office and spoke with a paralegal who told him that Perez was the law firm’s Florida attorney.
According to the law firm’s website, Perez received her Juris Doctor in 2018 from Loyola University in New Orleans. She was admitted to the Florida Bar in May 2020.
Brown’s affidavit says the GM&H law firm’s website lists the the Riverview Inn as Perez’s address. A sign on the door of the motel says it is “close.” Brown said the paralegal told her that Brown works from a virtual office.
The Bar’s pleading says that Perez violated six Rules of Professional Conduct that require attorney supervision of any non-lawyer assistants, bar the unlicensed practice of law, prohibit the direct solicitation of clients and prohibit misleading statements.
The Bar asks the Supreme Court to immediately suspend Perez’s license, bar her from contracting with any new clients, cease disbursing or withdrawing any money from trust accounts and stop accepting any legal fees.
Neither Perez nor Houghtaling could be reached for comment on Friday.
Top photo: This screen shot, taken from the Florida Bar’s petition to suspend Jennifer Perez’s law license, shows the truck or trailer that was set up outside the Riverview Inn in North Fort Myers.
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