By Dan Moffett
Attorneys for the town of Gulf Stream are challenging the legitimacy of The O’Boyle Law Firm in their defense against dozens of lawsuits brought by resident Martin O’Boyle.
In the crosshairs of the town’s counterattack is O’Boyle’s son, Jonathan, who, in documents filed with the Florida Department of State in February, lists himself as the law firm’s president and director.
While Jonathan O’Boyle has a license to practice law in Pennsylvania, he is not licensed in Florida, and the Florida Bar requires that lawyers supervising cases have a state license.
During a six-hour deposition with Martin O’Boyle in September, Robert Sweetapple, an attorney for Gulf Stream, repeatedly raised questions about the relationships between Jonathan O’Boyle, the family law firm, the firm’s nonprofit partner Citizens Awareness Foundation and hundreds of lawsuits that together they filed across the state.
Sweetapple accused Martin O’Boyle of putting his son in “an untenable position” by enlisting him to perform legal work he wasn’t licensed to do.
“You were in such a rush to have your O’Boyle law firm that you actually put your son in a position where you opened a law firm in Broward County, Florida, before he became a Florida lawyer,” Sweetapple said in the deposition.
“No, it’s not correct,” O’Boyle responded. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Sweetapple has filed a court complaint charging Jonathan O’Boyle and the firm with “the unlawful practice of law,” and the potential impact of the charge is far-reaching. It could undermine the validity of hundreds of public records suits the firm filed on behalf of Citizens Awareness — against Gulf Stream, as well as dozens of other municipalities and government contractors across the state — and also tens of thousands of dollars the firm received in settlements for the cases.
The town’s complaint argues that O’Boyle’s law firm isn’t bonafide and entitled to take attorneys’ fees.
Sweetapple, a Boca Raton lawyer the town hired in March, said he has evidence that Jonathan O’Boyle filed legal documents using the name of a Florida-licensed lawyer who worked at the O’Boyle firm. Sweetapple told O’Boyle during the deposition that attorney Giovani Mesa complained in writing to Joel Chandler, the former Citizens Awareness executive director, that Jonathan O’Boyle “filed cases in Mesa’s name without Mesa’s knowledge or consent.”
Martin O’Boyle told Sweetapple he knows nothing about Mesa’s allegation or how CAF is run: “I have nothing to do with Citizens Awareness.”
In an interview with The Coastal Star, however, Chandler said that Martin O’Boyle founded the group late last year and recruited him to lead it. Chandler said he left CAF after five months because he grew disillusioned with its direction.
“I wanted to promote open government,” he said, “but it was all about making money for The O’Boyle Law Firm.”
The law firm; Citizens Awareness; a companion group called Our Public Records LLC; and the Commerce Group, O’Boyle’s real estate development company, all share office space in the same Deerfield Beach building. Several senior Commerce Group staff members also hold positions with Citizens Awareness.
Sweetapple said that cell phone records show that Jonathan O’Boyle was living in his father’s Gulf Stream home while running the Deerfield law firm — and while holding a Pennsylvania license that listed law offices in Philadelphia and Johnstown, state business records show. Sweetapple said in the deposition that the Philadelphia address was the townhouse residence of Jonathan’s sister and the Johnstown address was a building owned by his father; the attorney said O’Boyle used a cell phone with a 561 area code as his office number.
“You put your son in the position of engaging in unauthorized practice of law because you solicited him to participate in your public records litigation here in Florida,” Sweetapple told Martin O’Boyle during the deposition.
“You’re just talking nonsense,” O’Boyle answered, and said he is “not sure” where his son has been living.
Chandler said his relationship with the O’Boyles fell apart when he was unable and also unwilling to meet a quota of 25 suits filed each week. “I thought it was an abuse of our legal system,” Chandler told The Coastal Star.
Martin O’Boyle and another town resident, Christopher O’Hare, have filed about 1,500 public records requests to Gulf Stream, as well as dozens of complaints and lawsuits, most of them using The O’Boyle Law Firm. In October, town commissioners voted to pursue a federal RICO case (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) against the two men, alleging a pattern of behavior to intimidate and harass Gulf Stream and other municipalities.
The O’Boyle Law Firm and Citizens Awareness settled public records suits over alleged Florida Sunshine Law violations with Fernandina Beach ($5,000), Cutler Bay ($2,250) and Miami Lakes ($2,000), among others. The settlements include compensation for legal fees that Sweetapple and Gulf Stream will allege are unjustified.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization, found that The O’Boyle Law Firm had filed more than 140 lawsuits in 27 counties for Citizens Awareness and Our Public Records. Besides governments, the firm also targeted the contractors who worked for them, exploiting a 2013 amendment to state law that requires private companies holding public records to make them available.
FCIR reported that The O’Boyle Law Firm has also sued “a Catholic charity in Sarasota County, an accountant in Hillsborough County, and ChildNet, a nonprofit in Broward County whose mission is to ‘protect abused, abandoned and neglected children.’ ”
Chandler said he left his job at CAF in June after it became clear that “Marty O’Boyle would use public records laws like a club to get what he wants, and that’s money.”
O’Boyle called Chandler “a crook” in the deposition and is suing his former employee, claiming he misused CAF funds, a charge Chandler flatly denies: “The only things true in the suit against me were my name and that I live in Florida.”
Jonathan O’Boyle did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story. Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents Martin O’Boyle, blames Gulf Stream for not making public records available and calls the town’s RICO suit “unfortunate.” Berger says he doesn’t “intend to litigate this matter in the press.”
Martin O’Boyle said in the deposition that making his son part of the case was “criminal.”
“You’re not an honorable man,” he told Sweetapple. “What you did to my son, in my world, Marty O’Boyle’s world, Marty O’Boyle’s definition, I think is a crime.”