Florida Judge Removed from Bench Over Unethical Handling of Settlement Negotiations

In Broward County, prominent circuit court Judge Laura Watson was removed from the bench for improper conduct that occurred during her time in private practice before being elected to the bench in 2011. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Watson could not be trusted with her judicial duties based on her prior misconduct and ordered that she be removed from judicial service. As part of the court’s ruling, the court determined that an attorney is still liable for pre-election conduct after being elected to the bench. In making its ruling, the Supreme Court relied on recommendations from the Judicial Qualifications Commission, an independent agency, finding that Watson should be removed form the bench.

The inquiry into Watson’s ethical standards stemmed from her conduct during a series of settlement negotiations in 2002. At the time, Watson was representing a group of doctors who were suing their insurance company, Progressive, alleging that the insurer was not paying enough cash on its claims. There were two groups of lawyers representing the doctors on different allegations in the lawsuit. Eventually, Watson negotiated a $14.5 million settlement with Progressive, freezing out the other set of lawyers. The lawyers sued Watson and obtained a favorable judgment in 2010.

The investigation also revealed that Watson failed to inform her clients about material aspects of the settlement negotiations, thereby breaching a number of ethical duties that a lawyer owes to his or her client during settlement negotiations. According to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, during a settlement negotiation a lawyer must act as the client’s representative and fiduciary and should always act with the client’s best interest in mind and in furtherance of the client’s goals. The rules also require that a lawyer’s conduct during the negotiation be characterized by “honor and fair-dealing.”

One of the most important rules governing an attorney’s conduct in settlement negotiations states that the client retains ultimate authority over settlement negotiations and has the final say on whether to accept or reject a settlement offer. In fact, the client has the authority to decide whether to even pursue settlement discussions in the first place.

Throughout the negotiations, the lawyer must keep the client informed about any and all settlement discussions and must “promptly and fairly” report settlement offers to the client. When it comes to accepting settlement agreements, a lawyer is prohibited from acting outside the scope of authority granted by the client. For example, if a client says they will not accept a settlement of less than one million dollars, the attorney is prohibited from a accepting a settlement of $999,999 or less on behalf of the client.

If you or someone you know has been involved in an accident, it is important to seek the counsel and guidance of an experienced attorney whom you can trust. At Lusk, Drasites, & Tolisano, we have represented many personal injury victims throughout Southwest Florida, including in Fort Myers, Naples, and Cape Coral. We treat every client with the compassion and personal attention that they deserve and fight aggressively for their rights along every step of the way. We offer a free, no-obligation consultation, so you have nothing to lose. Call us now at 1-800-283-7442 or contact us online to set up your appointment.

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