[IMAGE CREDIT: The Florida Bar]
[Original Publish Date: 11/03/19]
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LAKE COUNTY, Florida – Two attorneys with Lake County practices have been disciplined by the Florida Supreme Court, a notice in the November issue of The Florida Bar News reveals. One lawyer, Barrett (“Barry”) Paul Burnette – now a convicted felon – has been suspended from the practice of law and the other, Dennis L. Horton, has been disbarred. Each court order was issued in late August, 2019.
Florida Supreme Court filings in attorney Burnette’s case detail problems which sprang from a series of criminal charges in both Lake and Orange Counties. According to one court document, “On August 7, 2018[,] respondent was arrested in Lake County, Florida, on charges of Aggravated Stalking, Aggravated Stalking Domestic Violence, Throwing a Deadly Missile, Felony Criminal Mischief, and Burglary to an Occupied Dwelling. The alleged criminal acts occurred in Orange County, Florida, but respondent left the scene and was located in Lake County, Florida, at the time of the arrest.”
Burnette resolved the Orange County case on July 2, 2019, when he entered a plea to two counts of felony criminal mischief with damage of $1,000 or more, together with two additional misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief. Among other terms and conditions, Burnette was sentenced on August 1, 2019, to 24 months of community control (house arrest), followed by 24 months of supervised probation. He was ordered to enter an inpatient treatment facility immediately upon being released from any jail and was prohibited from entering the area covered by the 32757 ZIP Code. A civil injunction continues against him “in full force and effect,” according to court records.
As to formal charges brought by prosecutors in Lake County, Burnette was sentenced on August 12, 2019, for the felony crime of aggravated stalking with credible threat and misdemeanor battery. He received a sentence similar to the one imposed in Orange County and must wear a GPS monitor while under supervision; he is not permitted to live in the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Lake, Marion, Sumter, Citrus or Hernando Counties while being supervised. Burnette received credit in the Lake County case for 303 days in jail and was adjudicated guilty of the charges.
As a result of his criminal convictions, Burnette was suspended from The Florida Bar on August 30, 2019, and given “thirty days from the date of this order so that respondent can close out his practice and protect the interests of existing clients [and is directed to] accept no new business from the date this order is filed until he is reinstated,” the Florida Supreme Court order reads.
Regarding attorney Horton, who was admitted to practice law in 1974, The Florida Bar had filed a May 1, 2017, petition for emergency suspension – alleging that Horton took improper loans from his clients, commingled trust funds in his operating account, and misused trust funds. In time, the Florida Supreme Court reviewed a referee’s report recommending that Horton be found guilty of professional misconduct.
In one finding, the referee informed the Court, “Horton represented E.L., a seventy-four-year-old client, in drafting a revocable living trust and power of attorney. Horton admitted to drafting a fifth amendment to the living trust naming himself as a fifty percent beneficiary in the distribution… E.L. agreed to loan Horton a total of $90,000. Horton used the power of attorney issued to him by E.L. to issue three checks to himself from E.L.’s checking account… Horton wrote a fourth check to himself in the amount of $15,000 from E.L.’s checking account and attempted to deposit the funds into his personal checking account. E.L. disputed this fourth loan, and the check was returned for insufficient funds because E.L. had removed most of the funds from his checking account with a ‘Closing Debit.’ Horton admitted that he initially did not provide a promissory note to E.L. to secure the loan nor did he advise E.L. to seek the advice of independent legal counsel regarding the transaction.”
In a separate matter, the referee reported to the Florida Supreme Court that, “Horton represented C.B., a seventy-five-year-old client. On or about August 30, 2016, pursuant to a durable power of attorney issued to him by C.B., Horton transferred $30,000 of the $32,066.34 balance in C.B.’s money market account to her checking account. The same day, Horton transferred $30,000 to a trust account for C.B. Following C.B.’s death on September 5, 2016, Horton transferred $17,500 of the $30,000 to his operating account by issuing a check. He noted in the memo of the check that one-half of the amount was for his attorney’s fees and the other half was for his work or appointment as the personal representative of C.B.’s estate. Horton testified that he had not yet been appointed as personal representative by the probate court at the time he took this fee and that he was not appointed as personal representative of C.B.’s estate until two days later.”
Thirdly, the same referee concluded, “Horton represented R.O.C., an eighty-five-year-old client. Pursuant to the power of attorney prepared by Horton and granted to him by R.O.C., Horton changed the name and address on his client’s accounts to reflect Horton’s name and mailing address. Horton indicated that he made these changes at the request of R.O.C. Horton invoiced R.O.C. for legal services provided in 2014; however, he failed to invoice him for legal services provided in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, Horton issued thirty-four checks totaling $43,000 from R.O.C.’s accounts to either Horton’s personal checking account or operating accounts. During this time period, Horton deposited funds back into R.O.C.’s checking accounts totaling $4,800. One of those checks came from Horton’s personal account shared with his wife. In 2016, Horton issued thirty-three checks totaling $82,840 from R.O.C.’s accounts to either his personal checking or operating accounts. During this same time period, Horton deposited funds back into R.O.C.’s checking accounts totaling $40,050. After the Bar began its investigation, Horton issued a letter to R.O.C. informing him for the first time of Horton’s compensation for 2015 and 2016 and attempting to explain his fees.”
In its order issued August 29, 2019, the Florida Supreme Court disbarred Horton after determining, “Horton has demonstrated a pattern of misconduct involving multiple clients over a period of approximately two years. The referee found that he acted intentionally and that his ‘pattern of activity during the relevant period of time focused on his best interest, i.e. to address immediate concerns of his own financial distress.’ The referee also found that all of the affected clients were elderly and had no support from family or friends.”
James Hope is a Florida Bar Board Certified Criminal Trial Lawyer who has been practicing criminal law in Tavares, Florida, since 1987. He has also been the Publisher and Executive Editor of Lake Legal News since 2009. He may be contacted at LakeLegalNews@gmail.com, or through his website at www.AttorneyJamesHope.com. [PHOTO CREDIT: Bonnie Whicher]