On August 23, 2019, Senior Judge Paul Huck of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida imposed severe sanctions—including two $59,900 penalties and an injunction prohibiting future filings without leave of court—on well-known Florida plaintiffs’ lawyer Scott R. Dinin and his client, serial plaintiff Alexander Johnson, after concluding Dinin and Johnson conspired to file frivolous claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA), inflated recoverable attorney’s fees, and unethically shared in the profits of their scheme.
The Court’s searing order stems from a series of complaints Dinin filed on Johnson’s behalf against gas station owners in southern Florida. In the pleadings, Johnson alleged the owners’ failed to include close captioning on the news and entertainment videos playing on their stations’ pumps, and thereby violated his rights under Title III of the ADA and the FCRA. The owners did not respond to Johnson’s pleading and the Court held a hearing after Johnson, through Dinin, moved for default judgment. At that hearing, the Court concluded that Dinin had “egregiously inflated and misrepresented” his claimed fees and that Johnson’s FCRA claim was frivolous because Johnson pursued it notwithstanding his knowledge that it was procedurally defective. The Court subsequently convened a hearing on July 22, 2019, for Dinin and Johnson to show cause why sanctions should not issue.
On August 23, 2019, the Court issued its order imposing sanctions, which included findings of fact as to Dinin’s inflated fees and Dinin and Johnson’s various misrepresentations to the Court. As to the fee issue, the Court found that Dinin was guilty of “gross overbilling” in the cases then before it as well as in other ADA cases Dinin filed on Johnson’s and others’ behalf. The Court singled out an entry in which Dinin billed 6.2 hours at a rate of $400 per hour to “to draft, review, and file” a “boilerplate complaint virtually identical to those which Dinin previously filed in his numerous other ADA cases.” Ultimately, the Court concluded that Dinin’s overbilling was so egregious that it was a “species of social malpractice” which “undermin[ed] public confidence in lawyers and the judicial system.”
The Court also traced various of Dinin and Johnson’s misrepresentations. Specifically, the Court found that Dinin misrepresented various aspects of his practice, including his level of experience (which was far lower than he claimed) and the sophistication of his support staff (which was far greater than he claimed). Perhaps most troublingly, the Court found that Dinin and Johnson misrepresented their true motives in pursuing their frivolous litigation strategy. The claims were not, as the pair claimed, about protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities but “solely about profiting from inflated attorney’s fees.” In support of its conclusion, the Court pointed to settlement agreements in which Dinin and Johnson agreed to dismiss their claims with prejudice upon only receipt of payment of their fees and without securing the defendant’s obligation provide any remedial action. In cases in which remedies were secured, the defendants were only obliged to turn off the television screens. The Court considered these toothless settlements as clear evidence that the purpose of the Dinin and Johnson’s lawsuits was lining their pockets and not advancing the cause of the ADA.
Having found that Dinin and Johnson were guilty of pervasive misconduct, the Court imposed sanctions. Of these, the most significant were the Court’s injunction prohibiting Dinin and Johnson from filing any ADA complaint in any federal or state court—within or outside Florida—without first receiving the Judge Huck’s leave, and the order requiring Dinin and Johnson to disgorge all fees and costs recovered in every gas pump case they filed. The Court also ordered both Dinin and Johnson to pay penalties of $59,900.
Judge Huck’s searing indictment of the unwholesome alliance between Dinin and Johnson, and the misrepresentations that were part and parcel of their scheme, should be welcome news for Title III defendants. It signals a possible shift toward greater judicial scrutiny of serial plaintiffs and the counsel who enable them, which should have the benefit of causing volume-filers to rethink their strategy. Ultimately, only time will tell whether the plaintiffs’ bar receives Judge Huck’s message.