The Florida State Bar is seeking sanctions against a partner at a well-known New Orleans-area law firm, alleging she used fraudulent tactics to solicit clients after Hurricane Ian.
The bar association filed a petition Thursday in the Florida Supreme Court asking for an emergency stay of the law granted to Jennifer Perez, a partner at Gauthier, Murphy & Houghtaling. The bar association’s pleading states that GM&H parked a truck in the lot of the Riverview Inn, a gated motel in North Fort Meyers, and manned it with a “non-lawyer” who admitted to investigators that he was “generally misperceived.” became the Federal Office for Disaster Control.
FEMA had participated in an “insurance village” set up by the Florida Department of Financial Services in Fort Meyers and Port Charlotte to help hurricane victims. No lawyers are allowed in these centers.
“Information about the Louisiana law firm was intentionally obscured in the respondent’s ‘Mobile Claim Center’ to make it appear that the truck is part of FEMA or the state-run Insurance Village, giving the Louisiana law firm an opportunity to recruit hurricane victims.” , so the petition says.
The bar association’s petition includes a photo of a semi-trailer (although it’s called a truck) and an air-conditioned tent attached to it. A sheet of black plastic covers the law firm’s name but does not cover the Louisiana law firm’s phone number.
“The Louisiana law firm’s website intentionally includes the defunct motel address to give the impression that it has a real law firm in Florida,” the petition reads.
The petition includes affidavits from investigators Karen Brown and John Berrena.
Berrena said when he visited the website on October 18, he came across a man posing as Sergio Alvardo, who is not a lawyer or paralegal. Alvarado told Berrena that people entering the tent thought it was a FEMA center. When asked if attorneys were on site, Alvarado identified John Houghtaling, a partner at the law firm who has an office in Metairie, Louisiana, the affidavit said.
Houghtaling is perhaps best known to Claims Journal readers as the attorney who filed the first-ever lawsuit seeking coverage for business interruption losses caused by COVID-19. He won a rare appeals court victory in favor of his client, a New Orleans seafood restaurant.
Berrena said he called Houghtaling’s office and spoke to a paralegal, who told him Perez was the attorney for the Florida law firm.
According to the law firm’s website, Perez received her Juris Doctor from Loyola University in New Orleans in 2018. She was admitted to the Florida bar in May 2020.
Brown’s affidavit states that law firm GM&H’s website lists the Riverview Inn as Perez’s address. A sign on the motel’s door says it’s “nearby.” Brown said the paralegal told her that Brown was working from a virtual office.
The bar association’s pleading states that Perez violated six codes of conduct that require legal supervision of all non-paralegals, prohibit unlicensed practice of law, prohibit direct solicitation of clients, and prohibit misleading statements.
The Bar Association is asking the Supreme Court to immediately suspend Perez’s license, prevent her from entering into contracts with new clients, stop disbursing or withdrawing funds from escrow accounts, and stop accepting attorneys’ fees.
Neither Perez nor Houghtaling could be reached for comment Friday.
Top Photo: This screenshot from the Florida Bar Association’s petition to suspend Jennifer Perez’s attorney’s license shows the truck or trailer parked in front of the Riverview Inn in North Fort Meyers.
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