Below the Bar

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

Melody Ridgley Fortunato was the type of woman young girls are taught to admire. She overcame early hardship, living modestly but with big ambitions in Americus, Georgia. After moving to South Florida, Fortunato took on a sexist boys' club in the Hollywood Police Department and won. Then she divorced a husband whose hobbies were, she said, taking steroids and busting her head open. In her spare time, she studied law, earning a reputation by the mid-'90s for fiercely defending battered women. Fortunato was awarded a JC Penny Golden Rule Award in 1995 for her dogged legal representation of the abused.

Based on first appearances, Fortunato is a veritable feminist heroine, a tough broad fighting the system from the inside.

But first appearances can be deceiving. Few talk any more about Fortunato -- still remembered as a foremost champion for South Florida women's rights in the mid-1990s -- as a selfless champion of the physically abused and legally ignored. According to former clients, the Florida Bar, and the state Supreme Court, Fortunato is an attorney with malleable ethics and an apparent distaste for paying bills. Despite having an office on the 20th floor of the swank 1 Financial Plaza in downtown Fort Lauderdale and living in a $223,000, four-bedroom house in Boca Raton, Fortunato has made a part-time job of dodging debts.

The story goes back more than two decades, when Fortunato, then a 21-year-old with a cosmetology certificate and a job working as a radio dispatcher for the Americus Police Department, traveled on March 5, 1982, to Columbus, Georgia, for a recruiting event hosted by the Hollywood Police Department. She called in sick to her job in Americus, scribbling on her application that day that she was looking for a job with room for advancement. The growing police agency in south Broward offered her a position the next month, agreeing to pay for cadet training.

That's where the trouble started, Fortunato would allege in court more than a decade later. The female cadets in her class were allegedly subjected to constant sexual harassment by training officers. They were forced to do sit-ups in front of the class, exposing their breasts to officers and fellow classmates, and ordered to give two-minute speeches about such words as hung and cunnilingus, Fortunato alleged. On one occasion while riding in a cruiser with a training officer, Fortunato claimed, her superior grabbed her by the head as they passed another cruiser and then forced her down toward his lap, making it appear as if she were performing oral sex.

Another woman in the training class, Cyndi Commella, corroborated Fortunato's story, alleging that Officer Kevin Companion served as lead agitator. "When [Companion] talks about a woman's genitals, he gets very descriptive," Commella said in a deposition. "And anal sex was discussed a lot."

Yet none of these incidents would be reported for another 12 years. Fortunato went on to have a successful police career, while earning in her free time a bachelor's degree in psychology from Nova Southeastern University. After graduation, she applied to law school at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. "While she was in law school, we allowed her to work the information desk on an officer's salary," recalls Joel Cantor, the police department's attorney, still miffed about Fortunato's lack of gratitude. "She worked 1 or 2 to 10 p.m. at night, and the whole time she sat there with her books, studying."

The department helped her fulfill the law school exit requirement, giving her a paid internship in Cantor's office. And after she graduated in 1992, the police department granted her a temporary leave of absence to study for the bar exam.

Then the charity ended, and the force wanted Police Officer Fortunato back on duty.

Fortunato had other ideas. She sued the City of Hollywood and three individual officers, including Companion, alleging that "she was subjected to various types of sexual harassment." In court papers, Fortunato detailed the harassment that occurred in her training class and the inappropriate behavior that Companion allegedly continued to exhibit throughout her career. Although Cantor describes the lawsuit to this day as "baseless," a jury disagreed and awarded Fortunato $205,000. It marked the first victorious sexual-harassment case against the City of Hollywood. (Commella later received a $100,000 jury verdict, claiming her career was ruined after testifying on Fortunato's behalf.)

A year later, Fortunato returned to court, filing divorce papers against her husband of two-and-a-half years, Peter Fortunato Jr., a Broward sheriff's deputy and father of her son, Dillon. Fortunato told the court that her husband abused her, sometimes while their 2-year-old son was in her arms, and had even attacked their German shepherds, once "driving one of the dogs' heads through a wall." Additionally, during divorce proceedings, her husband had threatened to kill her, Fortunato told the court.

The divorce, granted March 31, 1995, seemed to shape Fortunato's ensuing legal career. She built her early practice on representing abused women, garnering accolades and local press coverage for her efforts. But by 2001, Fortunato had shifted focus, choosing to represent men in divorce and custody cases before a court that the lawyer described as biased toward women and mothers. "If a mother says she is not getting child support, she will have a hearing within two weeks," Fortunato wrote in an October 2001 letter to Catholic World Report. "If a father says Mom is denying visitation, Dad will be lucky if he gets a hearing in two months."

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.

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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