Below the Bar

This women's rights champion is still a tough broad fighting the system. But now it's to dodge debts.

By then, Fortunato was traversing some rough legal ground. In 1999, the Florida Bar publicly reprimanded her for failing to refund a client's unused retainer and then billing the client for her efforts in responding to the subsequent bar complaint. Two years later, Fortunato was again before the bar, this time for failing to respond to court orders that resulted in the dismissal of her client's case. The Florida Supreme Court suspended Fortunato for 90 days, ruling that she later gave "verifiably false, confusing and deliberately misleading" testimony during the investigation. The next year, she was reprimanded by the bar once more for behaving inappropriately during her suspension. The state's governing body of lawyers doesn't issue suspensions and reprimands lightly. Last year, of 72,933 lawyers, only 116 were suspended and 43 publicly reprimanded.

By now, Fortunato's troubles extend beyond the bar. She's left a trail of debts while working as an attorney in Broward County. Among her creditors is Nancy Schenkman, a 45-year-old bookkeeper who hired Fortunato to represent her in a divorce case. Fortunato told Schenkman she'd never lost such a battle. Impressed, Schenkman handed over a $5,300 retainer. But Fortunato's undefeated record, Schenkman later discovered, was fabricated. She then called Fortunato, explaining that she no longer wanted her representation. Despite not having started on the case, Fortunato refused to refund the retainer.

The tough broad now appears to be fighting the system for her personal benefit, critics say.

Fortunato victim Nancy Schenkman: "This is about principle."
Jonathan Postal
Fortunato victim Nancy Schenkman: "This is about principle."

Schenkman took Fortunato to court, winning a judgment for $6,774.45, representing the retainer, interest, and legal fees. But Fortunato, who does not own property in South Florida, has so far refused to pay Schenkman, fighting wage garnishment by citing an exemption. Under Florida law, heads of households are excused from forced wage garnishment, one of several provisions that make the Sunshine State a debtor's paradise.

Fortunato declined to be interviewed for this article, writing in an e-mail: "Ms. Shenkman [sic] desires to bypass Florida Law and attempt to collect a judgment through public disclosure of indebtedness of a claimant as a self-help way of collecting a judgment or debt. This is regarded as an Invasion of Privacy, Tortuous Interference with Business and Abuse of Process."

Translation: Screw you. No comment.

Schenkman is one of a number of creditors and former clients who have won judgments against the cop turned attorney. In fact, one of Fortunato's largest debts is to Plantation lawyer Patricia S. Etkin, who represented Fortunato during a 2002 Florida Bar investigation and hearing. Over a six-week period, Etkin racked up $27,350 in fees representing Fortunato.

After winning a judgment against the attorney, Etkin attempted to garnish her wages and bank account. Fortunato, as usual, cited the head-of-household exemption. Bank of America then acknowledged to the court that Fortunato did indeed have an account. The balance? Overdrawn. The last $416.12 was taken by Charles L. Curtis, a Fort Lauderdale attorney to whom Fortunato owed $30,000 for previous legal work, according to court documents.

On a June afternoon, Schenkman stands outside an office building on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach, smoking a cigarette and peering through black, horn-rimmed eyeglasses. "This is about principle," Schenkman says. "Maybe there was a time when Melody did some good. But now she owes me money, a lot of money. She owes a lot of people money. And sadly, I know I'll never see any of it."

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