SARASOTA – The Florida State Bar is investigating whether Kathleen Mullin, the embattled executive director of Gulfcoast Legal Services, practiced law without a license.
Mullin, who took over the nonprofit in December 2012, never took the Florida Bar exam.
Despite not being licensed to practice law in this state, a former employee says Mullin issued orders in a series of emails, personally directing the handling of more than 140 active cases for the organization.
According to an email obtained by the Herald-Tribune, the Florida Bar’s Unlicensed Practice of Law Division has launched an investigations of Mullin and of Gulfcoast.
“As permitted by Bar rules, the complainant is the Florida Bar and the cases were opened based on the attached Herald-Tribune article,” Maria L. Torres, branch counsel to the Bar’s Unlicensed Practice of Law Division, wrote in an email.
J. Andrew Crawford, A St. Petersburg attorney chosen by the Bar to conduct the investigations, declined to comment.
Mullin did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this story.
Laura Prather, a St.Petersburg-based attorney retained by Gulfcoast to represent the nonprofit during the Bar’s probe, said the allegations against Mullin are “wholly unsubstantiated,” because the emails cited by the former staffer are incomplete and do not tell the entire story.
“The Florida Bar, based on an article that you wrote, in accordance with their regular practices, investigates any reported unlicensed practice of law,” Prather said. “A letter was received requesting us to comment.”
Prather says only Mullin, and not Gulfcoast, is being investigated for unlicensed practice of law. She declined to provide a copy of the Bar’s letter.
“Under their investigative rules, it remains confidential. Once it’s concluded, it becomes public record,” she said.
Prather did not know if Mullin had retained her own lawyer, but said the board was aware of the Bar’s investigation.
Asked about possible sanctions, Prather said, “I do not believe there are any sanctions that could be heaped upon a lawyer who is not licensed in the state of Florida.”
Sarasota attorney Steven Teppler, who served as chairman of the Florida Bar’s ethics committee, said the Bar could ask a judge to stop the practice.
“The Bar could get an injunction to prevent someone from engaging in the practice of law. They have done it in the past,” Teppler said.
Prather later acknowledged that was a possibility.
“If the Bar determined that anyone is participating in the unlicensed practice of law, they can go to a court and seek injunctive relief,” she said.
Teppler said the investigation could have additional impact, if Mullin decides to take the state Bar exam. The Bar could require her to take an ethics course, or put her through a more rigorous admissions process.
300 open cases
Mullin has drawn criticism from Southwest Florida’s legal community after firing Elizabeth Boyle, the longtime head of Gulfcoast’s Sarasota office, and dozens of volunteer lawyers who worked with her.
The Sarasota County Commission recently cut off all of its funding to Gulfcoast, based in part on Mullin’s actions.
Boyle maintains that her firing was partly because of her decision to provide legal assistance to Gina Ruiz, a 29-year-old quadriplegic whose case Mullin ordered Boyle to abandon after Ruiz already was a Gulfcoast client.
In a series of emails exchanged in the weeks prior to her termination, Mullin asked Boyle for a list of all active cases at the Sarasota office, “including type of matter, status, and pending deadlines so that we might properly address same, without lapse in service to our clients.”
Boyle replied that there were 300 open cases at the Sarasota office, all at various stages of completion.
In an email, Mullin noted that of these 300 cases, 140 had no recent activity. She then ordered Boyle to have a paralegal “begin to review and close out those cases with no activity for more than 90 days,” without the supervision of a licensed attorney.
Boyle balked, saying that the fact that a case does not have any recent activity does not mean it is not an active case. She pointed out that foreclosure cases can go months and months without activity.
If she had obeyed Mullin’s order to close the cases, Boyle has said she would have violated Florida Bar rules.
Boyle and one of her former volunteers, Jim McDonald have recently opened up their own law firm, McDonald and Boyle, at 1900 Main Street in the Courthouse Centre building.
Gina Ruiz was their first client.
“We have three cases so far, and they’re all pro-bono,” Boyle said, adding she and her partner plan to focus on foreclosure defense and consumer protection. They will take contingent cases — cases where they only get paid if they win.
“We’re able to work with people who can’t afford to pay a lawyer by the hour,” Boyle said.