Law Firm Denies Charges it Tried to Deceive Florida Hurricane Victims
The attorney accused of setting up a deceptive “mobile claim center” to solicit hurricane victims filed a motion on Monday to dismiss the Florida Bar’s complaint against her.
A lawyer for Jennifer Perez, a partner with Gauthier Murphy & Houghtaling, said the tent and trailer that the law firm parked outside of a defunct motel in North Fort Myers was used only to consult with existing clients, never to sign up new clients. The filing says Perez contacted the Florida Bar before setting up the makeshift office and was told that Bar rules don’t require a traditional “brick-and-mortar” location.
The Bar filed an emergency petition with the Florida Supreme Court last week to suspend Perez’s law license. Attorney Joseph A. Corsmeier filed the motion to dismiss that complaint on Monday. He said his client has not done anything improper.
Florida Bar investigators accused Perez of trying to deceive victims of Hurricane Ian by making it appear the trailer was part of an “insurance village” where victims of Hurricane Ian could meet with Federal Emergency Management Agency and state officials. A man that the investigators met when they visited the trailer told them that most people who stopped by thought it was part of FEMA.
Perez’s filing says the GM&H trailer was parked 11.9 miles from the actual “insurance village” set up in Fort Myers. The law firm put a sign up at the entrance stating “THIS IS NOT FEMA” after learning that some people who stopped by had gotten the wrong impression. (The filing does not say whether the sign was put up before or after the Bar investigators visited.)
According to the filing, GM&H — which is headquartered in the New Orleans area — began discussions about opening a Florida office in 2018. At first the law firm was considering associating with an existing Florida law firm, but decided instead to name Perez as its Florida partner. She became a member of the Florida Bar in May 2020, only two years after completing her law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans.
The filing says that at the time it was not feasible to open a Florida office because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
GM&H said it has dozens of “multiple-state” corporate clients. Before Hurricane Ian struck in late September, some of those clients sought representation because they were concerned about potential losses and recovery.
The law firm said it set up a trailer in the parking lot of the Riverview Inn in North Fort Meyers with an attached air conditioned tent and a small mobile home with bathrooms. GM&H consulted with “ethics counsel” to make sure that it complied with Florida’s strict requirements for establishing an interstate law firm.
“Additionally, because the multi-jurisdictional law firm was being finalized, all of the exterior of the trailer/mobile claims center was to be covered,” the pleading says. Sergio Alvarado — the man the Bar investigators met when they visited the site — was an independent contractor whose only function was to set up the office and keep it running, the pleading says.
A hearing on the the Bar’s emergency petition may be held soon.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos G. Muñiz on Monday ordered Charles E. Roberts, chief judge of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota, to “immediately” appoint a referee to hear the case and submit a report and recommendation within seven days of assignment. “This Court shall review and, if appropriate, approve the referee’s recommended disposition order, Muñiz’s order states.
Top photo: This image, attached as an appendix to Jennifer Perez’s motion to dismiss the Florida Bar case against her, shows a sign that Gauthier, Murphy & Houghtaling put up next to the entrance of its makeshift office in a motel parking lot in North Fort Myers.
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