Referee Recommends Probation for Attorneys Who Gave Judge Baseball Tickets

In March 2016, the Sports and Entertainment Law Insider wrote about a Florida judge who resigned after coming under fire for accepting tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game from a law firm contemporaneously arguing a case in front of him. On Tuesday, May 22, 2018, the attorneys who provided the tickets to the judge were subjected to probation and admonishment penalties by a referee in the Supreme Court of Florida. The Florida Bar Association will now review the report and recommendations to determine the finality of the disciple.

In 2015, the attorneys provided tickets to multiple Rays games while they were representing the plaintiff in a slip-and-fall case against Wal-Mart. A jury had issued a verdict for the defendant one day before the attorneys offered tickets to the judge. The Boston Red Sox were in town to play the Rays and the judge had been seen wearing a Red Sox hat, prompting the attorneys to believe the judge may be interested in the game. After the judge accepted the tickets, the attorneys filed a motion for a new trial. While the motion was pending, the judge requested additional tickets. One day after more tickets were received, the judge granted the motion for a new trial. The judge eventually recused himself from the case and resigned from the bench amidst impropriety charges from the Judicial Qualifications Commission. An appeals court reversed the order to grant the motion for a new trial.

The referee says he found no evidence that the tickets affected the outcome of the case. The judge claims he would have ruled the same way on the motion without receiving tickets, with the report noting, “the verdict was the worst verdict he had seen in his three years on the bench … regardless of it being reversed on appeal, he stood by his decision to grant new trial, and would do it again.”

Both the judge and the attorneys insist that, although they should have, they did not consider the impropriety of providing or requesting the tickets. The law firm has held tickets for years and regularly gives them away but never had given tickets to this judge directly. The attorneys say they had no intent of influencing the judge.

In the report, the referee recommended one year probation and a requirement that the attorneys speak to new attorneys about the incident, finding that four violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct or Rules of Discipline were violated. The attorneys were found to have violated rules for seeking to influence a judge, dishonesty, and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

In weighing mitigating and aggravating factors, the referee found that the mitigating factors were more influential, noting the attorneys’ absence of a prior disciplinary record, positive reputation, genuine remorse, and rehabilitation policy stating that the firm may no longer provide tickets to anyone in the courthouse.

In addition to probation and required speaking at a professionalism conference, the attorneys will have to complete a practice and professionalism enhancement program and pay over $5,000 for court costs in the case if the Florida Bar Association chooses to accept the referee’s recommendations.

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