What To Do When a Lawyer Steals Your Money
This is a legal malpractice website. We sue lawyers who make mistakes. It happens to everyone, sooner or later we all make mistakes. And that’s why lawyers, doctors and automobile owners have insurance. Theft, however, is an intentional act.
If a lawyer steals, the theft probably isn’t covered by malpractice insurance. Thankfully, most lawyers don’t steal. Only a small fraction of one percent do. For their clients, however, collecting could be difficult.
In Florida, the Florida Supreme Court disbarred a Daytona Beach attorney for stealing money from his client trust account. These stories are rare enough that they are still newsworthy. The facts of this case, however, are particularly memorable.
From what we can piece together, Brett Hartley was a 9th grade dropout from Massachusetts. How he became a lawyer and then a prosecutor and now an alleged thief is an interesting tale.
Hartley claims his parents split when he was just one. He said he struggled and then simply just dropped out of school after just one year in high school. Ultimately he earned his GED.
Several years later he wound up in Florida. With no steady income, he was a surfer who worked construction to make ends meet. Ultimately he was able to get his life together, go back to school. Ultimately he went on to law school and passed the Florida Bar.
As a new lawyer, Hartley went into public service and became an Assistant State Attorney.
Years later, Hartley would leave government service and enter private practice.
By 2017, clients were reporting that money they had given to Hartley disappeared. He was suspended from the practice of law in August 2018 and again in February 2019. Now it appears that he has been disbarred. From what we can tell, the clients he defrauded still have not been repaid by him.
Where did the money go? The state bar says the money went to pay Hartley’s personal expenses and fund a strip club he co-owned, Flash Dance.
According to the Supreme Court,
“The Supreme Court’s ruling to disbar Hartley came after he failed to provide documents and financial records to investigators from the Florida Bar and only sporadically participated in the inquiry, according to records.
“The Florida Bar tried to accommodate Hartley during the investigation due to his “efforts at substance abuse rehabilitation” and because he lived out of the area in Colorado, documents state.”
My Lawyer Stole My Money, What Can I Do?
As noted above, malpractice insurance typically does not cover an intentional act. Just like automobile insurance doesn’t cover the occupants of a vehicle who commit a drive by shooting. Stealing is an intentional act and that means its probably not covered by the lawyer’s insurance.
If a lawyer steals your money, you can always sue the lawyer. Unfortunately, lawyers that are so desperate that they steal typically don’t have any money.
You can also file a bar complaint. That may get the lawyer disbarred, exactly what happened to Brett Hartley. Like filing a lawsuit, it doesn’t necessarily put money in your pocket.
There is a silver lining. Many states have client protection or client security funds. Florida is one of those states. In Florida, the Clients’ Security Fund was created to help clients suffered a loss of money or property due to misappropriation or embezzlement by an attorney.
Florida requires that the lawyer first be subject to disciplinary action by the bar. In other words, the fund won’t pay until the bar has determined that the lawyer engaged in improper behavior.
Each state has different rules including limits on how much they will pay. In Florida, you can collect up to $5,000 for advanced fees if the lawyer failed to provide any “useful services.”
Thefts from clients are subject to a much higher limit, up to $250,000. The fund pays just once a year and depending on how much money is in the fund. If there are many claims in a given year you may receive only a percentage of your loss.
If you have questions about whether your state has a client security fund, contact the state bar or consult with a lawyer.
Lose Money Because of Malpractice?
If the lawyer is broke and stole money from you, there is little we can do. Your best bet is hoping that the state where the lawyer practices has a client security fund. Most claims against lawyers are for malpractice, not theft.
Most lawyers have malpractice insurance that covers losses due to negligence or mistakes by the lawyer. If you believe you received shoddy legal work and suffered a loss, we may be able to help. For more information, visit our legal malpractice information page.
Ready to see if you have a case? Contact online, by email [hidden email] or by phone 877-858-8018. All inquiries are strictly confidential. Most cases can be handled on a contingency fee basis.