Frivolous This Is Not! | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Frivolous This Is Not!

In the hall of fame of Broward County power, a special alcove -- decorated perhaps with dollar signs -- would be reserved for lawyer-lobbyist extraordinaire George Platt and the awesome political machine of the Hamilton Forman family.

When county commissioners collect campaign contributions, it is not unusual for reporters to add up all the money coming from those connected with Platt and those connected with the Formans and come up with a total of more than $30,000, a figure that rises like a man on Viagra when one includes school board and municipal elections. In return the elected officials of Broward County generally find ways to keep both Platt and the Formans happy. In 1994 county commissioners did this the easy way, paying $2 million for a building the owners of which included Platt and M. Austin Forman, Hamilton's son, brushing aside the annoyance that the county's purchase price was more than $1 million above the building's appraised value.

With this kind of pleasant relationship, when a squabble develops between a Forman and Platt, commissioners and political players tend to observe it with uneasy fascination, like children who, as they watch two generous uncles do battle, worry mostly that their candy bars might get scrunched.

At the moment they are watching a squabble between Platt and lawyer H. Collins Forman, Jr., known as "the quiet Forman." Soft-spoken and deeply religious, he seldom plays power games, concentrating instead on law practice, church, and family, his only acknowledged vice an overwhelming craving for lychee nuts. With a straight face, he even links in one sentence the words "lawyer" and "idealist."

Of more interest to Broward taxpayers is the fact that Forman represents them and, with a crusader's seriousness of purpose, is seeking to recover more than $400,000 in county legal fees, pursuing in this lonely quest superpower lawyer George Platt.

Or as Platt observes: "Collins thinks he's on a mission from God!"
At issue are Forman's fees and costs for being the county's lawyer in a lease dispute between Port Everglades and a Platt client called Port Recycling Industries, which wanted land for an automobile scrap-metal shredding business. During lease negotiations Port Recycling apparently valued Platt for more than his superb legal skills, noting in an internal memo that he is a former county commissioner who "appears to be very well connected," that the port administrator "used to work for Platt," and that "all port authority jobs are political appointments."

Indeed, Platt's lychee nut is power, and the term "soft-spoken" is applied to him as infrequently as the term "idealist." But Forman levels a more serious charge, that the actions of Platt's firm in representing Port Recycling are the kind of behavior that causes people not to want to invite lawyers to their tea parties.

"I'm concerned about the legal profession, and I really feel lawsuits like this are what give us a black eye," said Forman, who calls Port Recycling "a lawyer-manufactured case, manufactured in bad faith," with Platt "right in the big fat middle. It was his lawsuit."

Returning fire, Platt called his clients "innocent victims" who got "totally and royally screwed.... There's nothing frivolous about that case."

"Frivolous" is the key word in the Forman-Platt dispute -- whether a suit filed by Platt's firm was so without merit that the firm should be punished by paying a portion of the county's legal fees to Forman.

The dispute began when Port Recycling, after signing its port lease in 1990, encountered various environmental permit problems, abandoned its automobile shredder project, and stopped making lease payments. In 1993 Port Everglades sued to recover $358,300 in back payments and Platt, who then had his own practice, countersued -- arguing Port Everglades was responsible for the permit problems -- and sought more than $14 million in damages for the failed business.

In September 1997, after a two-week trial, Broward Circuit Judge Leonard Stafford ruled that the Port Recycling countersuit brought by Platt was "totally without merit" and awarded $516,343 in back lease payments and interest to Broward County, which took control of Port Everglades in 1994.

Great victory for Collins Forman and county taxpayers, except for two glitches:

*To win the case the county had already spent more than $900,000 on Forman's legal fees and costs.

*By the time the case ended, Port Recycling had no money.
For Forman and the county there was one other possible source: Under Florida law the winner in a civil lawsuit can collect half of its legal fees from the opposing law firm if a judge determines the lawsuit was frivolous -- that there was a "complete absence" of legal or factual issues, and that the losing lawyer had not acted in "good faith" in bringing the suit.

To Forman, Port Recycling meets that test because, he argues, internal Port Recycling documents show the firm knew it didn't have much of a case against Port Everglades but was searching for what lawyers call "deep pockets."

"They figured the port was a big, fat entity that maybe they could extract a settlement from," Forman says. "All along they've just been trying to get back their money that they lost."

In February Forman asked Judge Stafford to declare the Port Recycling suit frivolous and to collect about $400,000 in fee payments from Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, the national firm where Platt now practices.

Although Stafford quickly refused, Forman was not deterred, seeking permission from the county commission to appeal Stafford's ruling on a contingency basis, taking 25 percent of any fee award he wins for the county. Commissioners agreed, after Chairwoman Lori Parrish, a friend of the Forman family since childhood, roared, "This is an integrity issue. I'm tired of being the deep pockets. I'm tired of paying people off. I'm tired of people thinking we're a bunch of dumb country bumpkins."

Among the issues that irritated commissioners was that while they had been paying Forman $900,000 to fight a lawsuit brought by Platt and Eckert Seamans, the county had been also been paying Eckert Seamans to be its lawyers: more than $241,000 since 1995. Thus Eckert Seamans was both friend and enemy at the same time, which is not supposed to happen.

"The policy is, you can't have a conflict," unless you get a waiver from the commission, which Eckert Seamans did not do, said Michael Kerr, an assistant county attorney handling the port case. "The most prudent scenario would have been to obtain a waiver," he said. The failure to do so "would obviously be taken into account in any future work."

After what sounded like a threat against Eckert Seamans, Platt was asked whether he feared punishment by county government on future legal work, to which he responded by breaking into laughter. "It's ridiculous," Platt said, adding that Eckert Seamans considered the lease case to be against Port Everglades, not county government, so there was no conflict.

Of Forman's contention that Eckert Seamans should be penalized for bringing the port lawsuit, Platt said that the fact the case lasted more than four years, surviving various motions to dismiss and ending with a two-week trial, is evidence that legitimate issues were raised. His clients would have appealed, Platt said, except "they've effectively run out of money."

Eckert Seamans now accuses Forman of a "personal vendetta," warning that if he pursues the county's legal-fees appeal, the firm will consider that action "frivolous" -- and go after the county and Forman for its legal fees.

Even Forman acknowledges his appeal is based less on a "smoking gun" than on "nuggets you have to sort of sift out.... Perhaps the appellate court will say, you're full of baloney, grow up, don't be such a child. But I tend to feel like I need to at least ask the question of the appellate court, because it looks real bad to me."

So after five years and $900,000, county commissioners say the case will continue, for, in the words of chairwoman Parrish, "sometimes you roll the dice."

Thank goodness they're not a bunch of country bumpkins.