Would this happen today? This judicial removal was in 1999.
The Florida Supreme Court Thursday removed a Sarasota-area family court judge for ethics violations, including mishandling a child custody case and lying about it when she was a lawyer.
Deborah Ford-Kaus was charged by the Judicial Qualifications Commission with overcharging her client, Tricia McBee, billing her for hours never worked. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the JQC charges and ordered her off the bench.
The court also found that Ford-Kaus, 46, filed McBee’s appeal in the wrong court, didn’t move fast enough on her behalf in the child custody case, backdated court documents to make them appear timely, and lied to McBee.
The charges stemmed from Ford-Kaus’ last case as a private family law attorney in the days before she was elected to the bench in the 12th Judicial Circuit in 1996. The circuit covers Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.
Supreme Court of Florida
Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 97-74
730 So. 2d 269 (Fla. 1999)
Decided Feb 11, 1999
Original Proceeding — Inquiry Concerning a Judge
We review the recommendation of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) that Judge Deborah Ford- Kaus be removed from her position as circuit court judge for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit. We have jurisdiction pursuant to article V, section 12 of the Florida Constitution. We have considered the record, Ford-Kaus’ written response, and oral argument. For the reasons expressed below, we affirm the JQC’s recommendation.
Ford-Kaus was elected as a circuit court judge in 1996. On August 19, 1997, the JQC charged Ford-Kaus with violating numerous Rules of Professional Conduct1 as well as Canons 1 and 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct2
The charges related to conduct that occurred prior to Ford-Kaus becoming a circuit judge as well as to conduct that took place during her time on the bench. The charges primarily concerned Ford-Kaus’s representation of one of her clients, Tricia McBee. A formal hearing was conducted and the JQC submitted its Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendation on May 20, 1998. The JQC made the following findings of fact:
Deborah Ford-Kaus was elected as a Circuit Judge on November 5, 1996 and assumed her judicial duties on January 6, 1997. She graduated from law school in 1977 and began the actual private practice of law in 1986. She is a member of the Bar in the states of Texas, New York, Massachusetts and Florida.
She served briefly as an Assistant State Attorney in the 12th Circuit and then engaged in private practice doing primarily family law in the Sarasota County area. She was joined in her practice by attorney Linda Griffin in August of 1994. Although they practiced together, they did not share fees, had their own separate bank accounts and were not a true partnership.
Disputes over the McBee case have resulted in a total split between two former friends and Linda Griffin had the locks on the office changed to exclude Judge Ford-Kaus.
In June of 1996, then attorney Ford-Kaus entered into a written contract to handle an appeal in a family law matter on behalf of Ms. McBee. The case concerned an order modifying the primary residential custody of Ms. McBee’s minor child. This appeal required expedited treatment and McBee was, of course, the appellant.
The appeal was mishandled from the beginning by then attorney Ford-Kaus who had almost no appellate experience, having previously worked on only a part of one appeal. She previously wrote an amended Answer Brief under direction of a partner. The brief was stricken, but she was allowed to present oral argument and the case was a PCA in her client’s favor. The McBee appeal was initially filed in the wrong court and the record was delayed by inaction by counsel. A stay should have been sought and the case should have been expedited because it concerned custody of a minor.
These steps were not attempted by Judge Ford-Kaus. Expert opinion evidence as to the mishandling of the appeal was accepted over objection.
Apparently, because of the time constraints of running for judicial office, the case was referred to another lawyer to write the brief. Mr. Dwight Olsen was a friend of Linda Griffin and he agreed to research and write the brief for Judge Ford-Kaus for a flat fee of $1,000. He had no idea if McBee had been advised that he was to write the brief nor did he know what the client was to be billed. He considered Judge Ford-Kaus, whom he met only by phone, as the “client.” The brief took him considerably more time than he anticipated, but he charged only $1,028.45, the flat fee plus costs. He was paid this amount and furnished the brief in a form expecting that Judge Ford-Kaus would insert the necessary references to the trial transcript. He had the almost finished draft in Judge Ford-Kaus’ hands on October 31, 1996, anticipating a filing by November 8, 1996.
The due date on the brief in the Second District Court of Appeal was Friday, November 8, 1996, a date which Judge Ford-Kaus had asked the Court to grant her in her motion for a 45 day extension. The brief was actually filed on November 19, 1996 after being Federal Expressed from Judge Ford-Kaus’ office on November 18, 1996.
Obviously, the brief was 10 days overdue, but the Court accepted the late brief and did not grant the Motion to Dismiss the appeal because of the late filing. Generally, the District Courts do not dismiss cases for such minor infractions.
The Court did strike the brief and allow an amended brief because it lacked record references which Judge Ford-Kaus should have realized. After newspaper publicity, the representation of McBee on the appeal was eventually taken over by another lawyer with considerable appellate experience who agreed to the representation on a pro bono basis. The last brief in the case had been filed shortly before the hearing of March 2, 1998.
Judge Ford-Kaus charged her client McBee more than $9,000 in fees and never advised that Mr. Olsen had done all of the work on the brief for a $1,000 fee, plus $28 in costs. When Ms. McBee conferred with Judge Ford-Kaus on January 3, 1997 which was the Judge’s final meeting in her office before assuming her judicial duties, the brief and the overall status of the appeal was the subject of their discussion. McBee, who brought a witness and made specific notes, asked Judge Ford-Kaus if she had written the brief and if it had been timely filed. Ms. McBee had already called the clerk of the Second District Court of Appeal and knew the brief was late. However, Judge Ford-Kaus specifically told her client that she had, in fact, written the brief and that the brief had been timely filed. Judge Ford-Kaus even went so far as to tell McBee that the clerk of the District Court was in error.
At this point, it was clear beyond a reasonable doubt that Judge Ford-Kaus knew the brief had been filed late and well — knew that Mr. Olsen had written the brief. Mr. Olsen’s name was on one of the records and McBee stated that she asked who he was and was told he was an “assistant.”
By clear and convincing evidence, the Panel concludes that Judge Ford-Kaus was knowingly untruthful to her client. Judge Ford-Kaus would later admit to telling her client “white lies” during the meeting.
The Panel also concludes that the Motions to Dismiss and Strike the brief served December 2, 1996 were, in fact, received by Judge Ford-Kaus prior to the meeting of January 3, 1997.
The brief which was actually filed with the Second District Court of Appeal was received in evidence.
The brief contains a certificate of service signed by “Deborah Ford-Kaus.”
A blank line in the certificate of service with handwritten dates is extremely confusing. It shows the number “8th” to have been written over and the number “10th” or possibly “18th” superimposed. The numeral “10” is the most prominent and it is most likely that the “8th” was initially written and then changed to the “10th.” It is unquestioned that this brief was in fact Federal Expressed out of Judge Ford-Kaus’ office on November 18, 1996.
The brief was also accompanied by a letter dated November 10, 1996 which advised the clerk that the original brief was being forwarded that date. November 10, 1996 was a Sunday and this letter dated the 10th containing no handwritten mailing information was also Federal Expressed on the 18th and was certainly an attempt to mislead.
Based upon all of the evidence, the Panel concludes that the certificate of service on the brief constituted intentional back-dating and this plus the letter were false and an attempt to mislead the Court and counsel.
The late filing of any court document may certainly be a serious matter but it is often understandable and remediable.
However, intentionally inserting a false certification date is a misrepresentation of a much more serious nature.
The election occurred on Tuesday, November 5, 1996 and the Ford-Kaus billing records in her own handwriting showed work on the appeal of 8 hours on November 6, 8 hours on November 7 and 8 hours on November 8.
The clear and convincing evidence, as accepted by the Panel, showed that Judge Ford- Kaus did no work whatsoever on these days and merely visited her office to pickup congratulatory messages on the days after her election. Judge Ford-Kaus also did not deny these allegations in her Answer and merely stated there was a “billing error” due to unusual circumstances which affected her judgment. When McBee asked about the bills for November 6, 7, and 8, Judge Ford-Kaus told her the dates were wrong.
The Panel concludes that the insertion of 8 hours per day for three days in a row was a conscious act and that Judge Ford-Kaus’ attempted explanations given on several occasions have been inconsistent and untruthful.
The Commission concludes that Judge Ford-Kaus has been untruthful concerning her bills to both her client and to the JQC Investigatory Panel.
These billings of 8 hours per day had been brought to the attention of Judge Ford-Kaus during discovery in the McBee lawsuit against her over the bill and during the 6(b) hearing by the JQC Investigatory Panel.
Judge Ford-Kaus has now admitted that the bills were “clearly excessive” but she was untruthful in her explanation to her client and the Investigatory Panel. At the 6(b) hearing, she blamed the bills on a secretary when she did not even have a secretary at the time. Her explanation during the trial that she thought she was being questioned by Commissioner Tate at the 6(b) hearing about bills in general rather the specific bills for 8 hours per day is rejected as unreasonable and unbelievable as is her testimony that she never looked at her bills until the 6(b) hearing.
As to the specific allegations of lying in the 6(b) hearing of July 25, 1997, the Hearing Panel concludes that subparagraph (A) concerning a secretary preparing the bills was established as false.
Judge Ford- Kaus eventually admitted she had no secretary at the time in question.
Paragraphs (B) and (C) were situations where Judge Ford-Kaus phrased her answers in a manner calculated to mislead the Investigatory Panel.
Judge Ford-Kaus has been further untruthful to this Hearing Panel in attempting to explain her position regarding these bills. Judge Ford-Kaus testified as follows:
BY MR. SMITH:
Q What is that, Judge?
A This is the billing format that was used routinely in my office, and this shows three billings to — or about Tricia McBee during November just immediately after the election. . . .
Q Is that your handwriting? A Yes, it is.
Q What does that purport to show? What is that — why was that made?
A I — this is probably the most critical question that I’m going to have to answer during this entire proceeding because this document appears to show something about my frame of mind in this case that simply was not the case.
I can tell you — before I tell what — if you’ll just allow me a second, Counsel.
I can tell you just as a start-off that if I — if I were sitting in my own judgment and if I was sitting in your place, I would have a lot of difficulty with my explanation to-to you about why I did not intend to overbill Ms. McBee.
This thing shows an absolutely implausible number of work hours for the period of time post-election. And I did not spend 24 hours working for Trish McBee on the three days after the election. There’s no question about that.
I did, however, surround myself beginning immediately after the election for approximately the next ten days with her materials, her briefs, her transcripts, the research. And I was struggling with trying to do something with this brief. Ultimately, I did not do anything productive.
Why I wrote down time that made it look as though I was productive, I just can’t answer. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know this document existed until it was shown to me by counsel at my deposition. I had no recollection of it. I knew it was my writing. I knew I must have done it.
I’m taking responsibility for overbilling this client, but I just cannot believe that I ever said to myself, “You know, if I just write all this down, no one will ever know this and I’ll just get the money for it.” It’s just — I’d never done it; I couldn’t do it; I didn’t do it.
Under In Re Davey, 645 So.2d 398 (Fla. 1994), we are mindful that Judge Ford-Kaus is entitled to notice before any new charges are brought and the lack of truthfulness before this Panel cannot be viewed as a new charge. The result of this proceeding would be the same notwithstanding Judge Ford- Kaus’ lack of truthfulness in this trial.
The Hearing Panel does conclude that the 8 hours per day was false and that Judge Ford-Kaus did not surround herself with working on the brief for the next 10 days after the election. She filed the Olsen brief without changing a single word. She did absolutely nothing productive or otherwise on this brief. This was a very simple brief.
The factual statement was 17 lines long and lacked transcript references. The argument section was 6 pages in length. Mr. Olsen was never even contacted by Judge Ford-Kaus after writing the brief in October.
McBee paid $9,376 (including transcript costs) through October, 1996 and was entitled to a partial refund for an overpayment at that point. She then received a further November 15, 1996 bill in the additional amount of $4,232 for fees and expenses.
Thus, Judge Ford-Kaus charged Ms. McBee well over $9,000 in fees for the appeal which actually consisted only of filing the unchanged Olsen brief.
Judge Ford-Kaus has now admitted these charges were “clearly excessive” and that McBee received no valuable services from her as a result of this fee. There was both an overcharge and a substantial misrepresentation to the client as to the actual services performed.
McBee paid in cash and Judge Ford-Kaus has also agreed that she deposited some of the cash payments directly into her own operating account and spent the money rather than depositing the payment into a trust account as a credit against future fees and services.
Judge Ford-Kaus was in the process of running for election and she was under very difficult financial constraints. She has admitted violations of the rules regarding trust accounts in her answer and these violations are found by clear and convincing evidence.
Judge Ford-Kaus was asked by her client McBee to return the sums paid her, but she wrongfully refused to do so.
Judge Ford-Kaus has admitted that a part of her reason for not repaying the fees was her displeasure with the attorney who replaced her in the appeal. This attorney had a relationship with a political adversary.
The McBee suit against Judge Ford-Kaus was initially defended and then settled for $20,000.
On January 3, 1997, a last meeting occurred between Judge Ford-Kaus, client McBee and attorney Linda Griffin. McBee attended this meeting with a witness and very specific notes resulted. The Panel finds McBee to be credible. She testified and the evidence supports the fact that she specifically asked Judge Ford-Kaus if she had written the brief and whether it was timely filed and that the answers to both questions was a clear, yes.
Judge Ford-Kaus later denied telling her that she had written the brief, but agreed that she certainly had not told her that she had not written the brief. She did not identify Mr. Olsen as the brief writer. The Panel finds that the authorship of the brief was misrepresented.
Attempts were made by Judge Ford-Kaus to convince McBee that Linda Griffin should take over the appeal. Linda Griffin disagreed and felt she was unqualified to handle the matter. After sitting in on the entire meeting, Linda Griffin concluded that Judge Ford-Kaus was not telling the truth. Linda Griffin told Judge Ford-Kaus after the meeting to apologize to McBee and to refund the fees to her. Judge Ford-Kaus very strongly refused “to give . . . [her] a dime.”
Later, Judge Ford-Kaus prepared a letter (the pink letter), and suggested that Griffin sign it. This letter would have refused further McBee appellate representation by Griffin on the grounds that McBee had become adversarial and confrontational with Griffin.
Linda Griffin refused to sign this letter and testified it was false.
Judge Ford-Kaus testified the pink letter was only a suggested draft and was merely “venting” of hostility on her part.
Judge Ford-Kaus left messages for Linda Griffin after she became a judge and although not specifically charged as violations these telephone messages show that undue pressure was being put on Griffin to issue the letter which she said was simply not true.
The Panel finds that Griffin’s and McBee’s versions of the facts are accurate and that the pink letter was absolutely untrue.
After taking office as a circuit judge, two lawyers represented Judge Ford-Kaus in her pending civil litigation matters of a personal nature. These two lawyers were initially Debra Salisbury and then Kate Halvorsen.
Judge Ford-Kaus did not advise the parties or counsel of her relationship with Ms. Halvorsen when she appeared before her in contested matters. Judge Ford-Kaus disputed many of the details as to these assertions, but she was clearly aware of her duty to disclose to all that an attorney in her courtroom was also personally representing her.
This conduct, while functioning as a judge, would directly destroy public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of Judge Ford-Kaus.
Judge Ford-Kaus also testified in her well-publicized deposition that she had lied to her client, but chose to characterize her statements as a “white lie.” She retreated from this position during her testimony before the Hearing Panel, but again, public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary has been substantially lessened.
While even “white lies” are unacceptable, these falsehoods were serious and substantial.
We reject the assertion that the stress of an election and the closing of a practice justify or mitigate the violations established herein.
All of the above factual findings are based upon clear and convincing evidence as further supported by the factual admissions contained in the Answer and Defenses.
(Record citations omitted.)
Based on this factual predicate, the JQC concluded that Ford-Kaus violated Canons 1 and 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct as well as rules 4-1.1, 4-1.3, 4-1.4, 4-1.5, 4-1.15, 4-1.16, and 4-3.2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The JQC determined that Ford-Kaus’s conduct demonstrated a present unfitness to hold judicial office. Accordingly, the JQC recommended that Ford-Kaus be removed from her position as circuit judge.
On appeal, Ford-Kaus claims that the evidence in this case is not clear and convincing.3 In In re Graziano, 696 So.2d 744, 753 (Fla. 1997), this Court outlined the procedure for reviewing findings of fact in judicial inquiries:
Before reporting findings of fact to this Court, the JQC must conclude that they are established by clear and convincing evidence. In re McAllister, 646 So.2d 173, 177 (Fla. 1994).
This Court must then review the findings and determine whether they meet this quantum of proof, a standard which requires more proof than a “preponderance of the evidence” but the less than “beyond and to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt.” In re Davey, 645 So.2d 398, 404 (Fla. 1994).
If the findings meet this intermediate standard, then they are of persuasive force and are given great weight by this Court. See In re LaMotte, 341 So.2d 513, 516 (Fla. 1977). This is so because the JQC is in a position to evaluate the testimony and evidence first-hand. See In re Crowell, 379 So.2d 107 (Fla. 1979). However, the ultimate power and responsibility in making a determination rests with this Court. Id.
Based upon our independent review of the record, we find that the JQC’s findings are supported by clear and convincing evidence.
We next turn to the appropriate sanction for Ford-Kaus’s misconduct. In Graziano, this Court stated:
Removal is the ultimate sanction in judicial disciplinary proceedings. We approve recommendations from the JQC that a judicial officer be removed when we conclude that the judge’s conduct is fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office.
696 So.2d at 753. We agree with the JQC that Ford-Kaus’s actions in this case were inconsistent with the responsibilities of a judicial officer and that she is presently unfit to hold judicial office.
The judicial system can only function if the public is able to place its trust in judicial officers. Ford-Kaus’s conduct demonstrates a pattern of deceit and deception.
That pattern, particularly as it relates to her own client, casts serious doubt on her ability to be perceived as truthful by those who may appear before her in her courtroom. Such conduct diminishes the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judicial system.
Therefore, we agree with the JQC that removal from judicial office is the appropriate sanction.
Finally, we point out this Court’s disapproval of certain conduct of the JQC’s special counsel in this case. Ford-Kaus claims that it was improper for the special counsel to address this Court regarding information contained in an unrelated affidavit. We agree.
Apparently, some time after the conclusion of the hearing before the Hearing Panel in this case, the special counsel filed a motion in an attempt to submit an additional affidavit to the Hearing Panel. The affidavit concerned separate charges that were unrelated to the charges in this case. The Hearing Panel denied this motion. Despite this denial, the special counsel proceeded to provide the affidavit to this Court and discuss the allegations from the affidavit in the answer brief.
This Court has not considered this unrelated affidavit in making its decision in this case. Our decision is based solely on the issues that are properly before this Court.
Accordingly, we approve the findings and recommendations of the JQC. Deborah Ford-Kaus is hereby removed as circuit judge for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit of Florida, effective upon this opinion becoming final.
It is so ordered.
HARDING, C.J., SHAW, WELLS, ANSTEAD, and PARIENTE, JJ., and OVERTON and KOGAN, Senior Justices, concur.