In a somewhat puzzling ruling handed down on May 25, a Florida district court judge held that the court lacked jurisdiction to address whether a Massachusetts lawyer who appeared on behalf of his defendant client at a Florida mediation was engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

As reported by Law360 (subs. req.), the plaintiff, which runs an adult subscription service, is suing defendant Sun Social and others for allegedly hosting pirated content on their internet porn sites.

No jurisdiction, no sanctions

At the mediation, Sun Social appeared through its Massachusetts counsel, who had not yet sought pro hac vice admission. Only after the parties reached an impasse did the plaintiff object to the Massachusetts lawyer’s participation. The plaintiff charged the lawyer with unauthorized practice and sought sanctions, including disqualification.

The district court held that it could not address whether the lawyer’s conduct was UPL, because the Florida Constitution vests the state supreme court “with exclusive jurisdiction over … the prohibition of practice by persons not members of the Florida Bar,” and case law interpreting the provision delegates the determination of UPL solely “to the Florida Bar.”

The federal court judge denied the sanctions motion, ruling that “only the Florida Supreme Court has jurisdiction to determine whether the alleged acts constitute the unauthorized practice of law,” and noting that the lawyer had since sought and obtained pro hac vice admission.

Really without teeth?

The court seems to have reached the right outcome here, but for the wrong reason — and in holding that it was required to be agnostic on the issue of UPL, the court took a too-narrow view of its power to remedy future conduct that it might be presented with.

First, Rule 4-5.5 of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct, like its Model Rule analog, creates some limited circumstances permitting lawyers admitted elsewhere to practice temporarily in Florida — including in “pending or potential” ADR proceedings like mediations (if the services arise out of or are reasonably related to the lawyer’s practice in his or her home jurisdiction). And second, the Southern District of Florida’s own Local Rule 11.1 incorporates the Rules of Professional Conduct as standards and provides that for violating those rules, “attorneys may be subject to appropriate disciplinary action,” including under the court’s own Rules Governing Attorney Discipline.

If the district court lacks authority to sanction lawyers who sail outside the limited safe harbor of Rule 5.5’s temporary-practice provision, that limitation does not appear in the court’s local rules. Indeed, it would appear to run counter to the court’s power to manage the proceedings before it.

“Immature and unprofessional mudslinging”

It is possible that the court was reflecting its impatience with the parties, which, the judge wrote, had engaged in “immature and unprofessional mudslinging.” And after all, the Massachusetts lawyer had (after “blatantly drag[ging] his feet”) finally obtained the court’s permission to appear. But in any event, the implication that the district court would be hamstrung in dealing with ethical misconduct constituting the unauthorized practice of law is unfortunate.