Jerrold Keith Wingate of the Republic of South Africa was disbarred effective 30 days from a July 2 court order. Wingate’s law firm handled numerous lawsuits for plaintiffs against a cruise line. Over the period of a year-and-a-half ending in September 2007, paralegals employed and supervised by Wingate paid cash to an informant from the cruise line’s risk management department to provide them with confidential information related to the lawsuits. Wingate, the two paralegals and a bookkeeper each contributed funds to start his law firm and fees received from the settlement of the cruise line cases were divided between them.
The Referee's Report in the Florida Supreme Court case gives graphic details:
b. According to the affidavits of Wanda Ballestas (“Ballestas”), over a period of about a year and a half ending in approximately mid-September 2007, a paralegal employed at various times by the Wingate Firm, Maria Elena Parilla (“Parilla”) met with Ballestas, a claims supervisor in the RCL Risk Management Department, and paid her cash in exchange for confidential information regarding RCL’s case/claim strategy, including RCL’s valuation of the same.
c. Per the Ballestas affidavits, Ballestas received $500 each time she provided settlement information to Parilla and received an additional $2,000 in December 2006 as a Christmas bonus.
d. Also per the Ballestas affidavits, after Parilla left the Wingate Firm in September 2007, Ballestas was contacted by Nelson Ayala (“Ayala”), another paralegal at the Wingate Firm, who continued the arrangement. Ballestas provided Ayala with three settlement authority amounts and received one $500 payment from him.
Read the report in its entirety for the scheme that sank a lawyer's career, but this paragraph is a shocker in terms of paralegal compensation:
l. Year-end pay stubs for 2006 reflect net earnings for the Wingate Firm’s book-keeper, Echeverria, of over $417,000 and of approximately $400,000 each for the two paralegals, Parilla and Ayala.
The report summarizes all of the ethical violations succinctly, including “failure to supervisor nonlawyers” and “sharing fees with nonlawyers”. The sordid tale is discussed in detail in an excellent article published earlier this year at Law.com.
Unlike that feel-good television series, The Love Boat, where adorable Yeoman Purser “Gopher” could always be trusted to take care of the passengers’ belongings and best interests, in this real life cruise ship drama, these paralegal “pursers” and their captain (no saintly Merrill Stubing) robbed the cruise line blind.