A long-running legal battle pitting a storied and politically connected West Palm Beach law firm against one of its founding partners culminated Wednesday when an appeals court ruled the partner deserved a fraction of the $2.3 million he was slated to get.
Rejecting calculations made by former Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that Ciklin Lubitz & O’Connell owed former partner Patrick Casey only $511,200.
“Reverse, reverse, reverse,” managing partner Alan Ciklin said of the appeals court decision. “We’re pleased and we feel vindicated.”
Attorney Eric Hewko, who represented Casey, said he and his client were “very disappointed” in the three-page ruling. The $511,200 is the equity Casey had in the firm roughly 15 years ago which doesn’t reflect what it was worth when he stepped down in 2012, he said.
Hewko said he and Casey are deciding whether to ask the West Palm Beach-based appeals court to reconsider the decision or whether to appeal it to the Florida Supreme Court. Ciklin said he doubted an appeal would be successful.
“It’s been a long haul and certainly not something we wanted to happen,” he said.
The saga began two months after Casey, a founder of the 30-year-old firm, resigned. While the firm paid him what Ciklin described as “less than $100,000” that he was owed under the partnership agreement, Casey sued, claiming he was entitled to more.
After a five-day trial in 2014, Brown agreed. She wrote a scathing 12-page opinion, questioning the veracity of Ciklin’s testimony, blasting the firm for keeping at least two sets of books and awarding Casey $2.3 million.
In its far less detailed ruling, the appeals court said Brown misinterpreted the partnership agreement. For instance, it rejected Brown’s reasoning that as one of 10 partners Casey was entitled to 10 percent of the firm’s income. “This mechanical approach ignored the language of the applicable portion of the partnership agreement,” the three-judge panel wrote.
In what some legal observers called an unusual move, the case was heard by Judges Martha Warner, Melanie May and Burton Conner. However, it was decided by Warner, May and Judge Robert Gross. The opinion notes that Gross didn’t hear oral arguments, but reviewed the record.
While acknowledging such switches are rare, Clerk of Court Lonn Weissblum said occasionally a judge discovers he has a conflict as the case progresses. Judges are not required to explain why they step down, he said.
Ciklin is the brother of Cory Ciklin, chief judge of the appeals court. Their brother, Blair Ciklin, is a longtime commissioner of the Port of Palm Beach.
The firm traces its roots to one of the county’s most prominent attorneys, Phillip O’Connell Sr. A former professional boxer, he served a quarter-century as Palm Beach County State Attorney while also maintaining a private law practice, according to the firm’s website. A bust of him graces the lobby of the state attorney’s office. His son, Phillip O’Connell Jr., and nephew, Brian O’Connell, are partners of the firm.
Roughly 10 years ago, one of its named partners – Bill Boose, considered the dean of local land use lawyers – was sent to prison for 15 months after admitting he helped former Palm Beach County Commissioner Tony Masilotti hide profits from a secret land deal. The scandal, that also sent Masilotti to prison, rocked the county.