In this day of lawyer Internet advertising, policyholders should carefully consider the lawyers they select. Most of my policyholder lawyer colleagues I have met and worked with over the years doing this type of property insurance litigation are hard-working and ethical. But some other law firms that rely heavily on advertising utterly fail, and cause harm to policyholders rather than help them.
The aforementioned was on my mind while reading an article, N.J. District Court Refuses to Reopen Superstorm Sandy Case Dismissed After “Months of Inaction”,1 where the Voss Law Firm lost hundreds of Superstorm Sandy property insurance cases. The article was about Margiotti v. Selective Insurance Co. of America.2 Here are some excerpts from the court’s discussion:
Voss represented several hundred plaintiffs in Hurricane Sandy litigation, to whom it “aggressively marketed itself,” and hundreds of these suits were eventually dismissed for procedural reasons after Voss either failed to prosecute or failed to participate in discovery.
At least one other Court in this District has recently upheld a dismissal for failure to prosecute because of the Voss Law Firm’s conduct….There, the plaintiff’s case had been dismissed and Voss sanctioned after Voss failed to respond to the defendant’s motion to dismiss, which resulted in the dismissal of the Complaint, and to the Court’s Order to Show Cause, prompted by the defendant’s allegations that the lawsuit was fraudulent….On a motion for reconsideration, the Honorable William H. Walls…upheld the sanctions against Voss and denied Plaintiff’s motion to reopen its case, finding that dismissal was an appropriate consequence that the plaintiff was to suffer.
In another case, Linbald v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company,3 the discussion was quite similar:
Plaintiff argues that judgment should be vacated because the ineffective assistance of her former counsel left her virtually unrepresented. According to Plaintiff, the Texas-based Voss Law Firm “aggressively marketed” to Superstorm Sandy victims including Plaintiff….As a result, the Voss Law Firm was retained by hundreds of people in New Jersey and associated itself with Harbatkin & Levasseur, PA as local counsel…Plaintiff contends that hundreds of lawsuits filed by the Voss Law Firm and Harbatkin & Levasseur PA have been dismissed on procedural grounds such as failing to serve complaints, failing to prosecute claims, and failing to answer discovery….At least one court in this district imposed sanctions on the Voss Law Firm and Mr. Levasseur of Harbatkin & Levasseur, PA for their neglectful representation in a Sandy lawsuit. See Lighthouse Point Marina & Yacht Club, LLC v. Int’l Marine Underwriters, No. 14-2974, 2015 WL 1969360 (D.N.J. May 1, 2015).
The Court notes that in a recent case…held that a SFIP insured should not be excused from a dismissal because of the conduct of the Voss Law Firm and Mr. Levasseur….the Voss Law Firm and Mr. Levasseur, representing a Sandy plaintiff, failed to respond to the defendant’s motion to dismiss which resulted in the dismissal of the complaint. Since the defendant asserted the lawsuit was fraudulent, the court issued an order to show cause to which the Voss Law Firm and Mr. Levasseur again failed to respond. As a result, the court entered judgment against the plaintiff, the Voss Law firm, and Mr. Levasseur, jointly and severally. Judge Walls also prohibited Bill L. Voss of the Voss Law Firm from seeking pro hac vice admission before him for one year.
In Lighthouse Point Marina & Yacht Club, LLC v. International Marine Underwriters,4 the court noted Voss’ neglect of their policyholder clients:
As early as June of 2014, judges in this district began to grant unopposed motions to dismiss actions filed by the Voss Firm and Mr. Levasseur, Brusco v. Harleysville Ins. Co., No. CIV.A. 14–914 JEI/JS, 2014 WL 2916716 (D.N.J. June 26, 2014). By the time this Court issued an Order to Show Cause…at least five other cases had been dismissed after a lack of prosecution or other neglect. See Truglia v. Selective Ins. Co., No. CIV.A. 13–7531 JAP, 2014 WL 5587978 (D.N.J. Oct.31, 2014); Castellucci v. Beers, No. CIV.A. 13–6691 JAP, 2014 WL 5449863 (D.N.J. Oct.27, 2014); Vanore v. Narragansett Bay Ins. Co., No. CIV.A. 14–373 FLW, 2014 WL 4979691 (D.N.J. Oct.3, 2014); Bruno v. Narragansett Bay Ins. Co., No. CIV.A. 14–382 JAP, 2014 WL 4854607 (D.N.J. Sept.30, 2014). Mr. Levasseur flouted another judge’s Order to Show Cause a mere four days after this Court threatened sanctions. See ECF No. 12, Dringus v. NJM Ins. Grp., 13–cv–6693 (JAP/TJB) (D.N.J.2014) (“Order to Show Cause Hearing held on 11/17/2014 why this matter should not be dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiff’s attorney failed to appear. Report recommending dismissal to be entered.”).
The failure of the Voss Firm and Mr. Levasseur to prosecute this action is not a one-time instance of administrative error or casual oversight; their neglect has been ongoing and pervasive in this district. In the months following this Court’s Order to Show Cause, the Voss Firm and Mr. Levasseur failed to respond to dispositive motions in multiple other cases. See Melillo v. Selective Ins. Co., No. CIV.A. 13–7542 FLW, 2015 WL 716646 (D.N.J. Feb.19, 2015); Hobson v. Am. Bankers Ins. of Florida, No. CIV.A. 14–948 MLC, 2015 WL 668700 (D.N.J. Feb.17, 2015); Golden v. Beers, No. CIV. 14–1468 NLH/KMW, 2015 WL 273649, at *1 n. 2 (D.N.J. Jan.21, 2015) (collecting cases where the Voss Firm and Mr. Levasseur failed to comply with court orders or otherwise prosecute actions); Eun Ju Song v. Bank of Am., N.A., No. CIV. 2:14–3204 WJM, 2015 WL 248436 (D.N.J. Jan.20, 2015). The weakness of Mr. Hunziker’s excuse that he trusted Mr. Levasseur to respond, even after repeated and obvious instances of disregard, raises doubts as to the Voss Firm’s good faith.
The Voss Law Firm signed up hundreds of New Jersey and New York policyholders and then subcontracted much of the legal work to only two local lawyers they found on Craigslist. This did not work out so well, and one court5 relieved one of the Craigslist attorneys from participation in future litigation:
Judge Pollak ordered plaintiffs’ counsel, David Harbatkin, Esq., who had subcontracted the work from Voss Law Firm, to appear and explain the lack of progress in this action and other Sandy-related matters handled by the Harbatkin firm, noting the fact that Mr. Harbatkin had not even contacted many of the individuals he claimed to represent before filing claims on their behalf. Ultimately, Judge Pollak relieved Mr. Harbatkin of the representation. . . .
Lawyers litigating against insurance companies will not win all their cases. Insurance companies are professional litigation machines and they pick their attorneys based upon their track record. Most insurance defense attorneys are hard-working, clever, and they have to produce or they will lose clients with lots of business because insurance companies are always getting sued.
By contrast, policyholders usually have no litigation experience and are uninformed about how to pick a lawyer to help them. They rely upon advertising to find counsel and top notch experienced property insurance litigators are a much rarer breed than personal injury attorneys. Policyholders often do not have access to the truth about their attorneys past record, their ability to finance litigation, how their case will be handled, and by whom.
I bet hundreds of Voss’ clients knew the answers to those questions before they signed their retainer contracts.
1 Meyerowitz, Steven A., FC&S Legal, March 21, 2016.
2 Margiotti v. Selective Ins. Co. of America, No. 14-1481, 2016 WL 853435 (D.N.J. Mar. 4, 2016).
3 Linbald v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., No. 14-908, 2016 WL 614407 (D.N.J. Feb. 16, 2016).
4 Lighthouse Point Marina & Yacht Club, LLC v. International Marine Underwriters, No. 14-2974, 2015 WL 1969360 (D.N.J. May 1, 2015).
5 Slinin v. Fidelity National Ins. Co., No. 14-3483, 2016 WL 843285 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2016).