State puts emergency stop on lawyer's practice

By Bruce Vielmetti
Saint Petersburg Times, June 23, 1995

TAMPA -- A Tampa lawyer whose practice reportedly became so unethical that his own staff alerted authorities, has been placed on emergency suspension by the Florida Supreme Court.

The court's Wednesday order found that lawyer Paul Nelson's conduct was "likely to cause immediate and serious harm to the public", if not stopped at once.

The Florida Bar charged Nelson with taking thousands of dollars from clients by settling their cases without their knowledge, then using the money to cover office and personal expenses. In some instances, the clients got only apportion of the amount Nelson recovered, the Bar charge, while many clients have yet to receive any of their settlements.

Nelson may also be the subject of a criminal investigation.

Nelson's firm, Nelson and Associates, P.A., 100 W. Kennedy Blvd., filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code earlier this year. Nelson had signed an affidavit in April stating he would take on no more clients after receiving a public reprimand and a term of probation from the Florida Supreme Court in September.

Neither Nelson nor his attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.

Employees from his firm contacted the Florida Bar via an anonymous letter in March, bar records show. The letter outlined Nelson's questionable dealings with clients and creditors. The letter indicated that Nelson typically got clients to sign a power of attorney when he first took their cases, allowing him the ability to cash settlement checks.

In addition, the letter indicated that staff and creditors often were not paid on time, having to wait until the next settlement check was obtained. In addition to such expenses, the employees wrote that Nelson also used client and firm funds to buy a Rolex watch, pearls for his wife, a Cadillac and a vacation home in Colorado.

Several clients also filed grievances against Nelson beginning earlier this year.

Susan Houdelette, 40, hired Nelson in 1993 to represent her in an unusual case against her former employer, the Hillsborough County Crisis Center. She accused a former co-worker of unleashing her multiple personalities while trying to break her smoking habit through hypnosis.

According to bar investigators, Nelson settled the suit against the co-worker for $105,000, but claimed a $42,000 fee and about $40,000 in costs, which the bar found "exorbitant".

But Houdelette said Thursday she has received only about $20,000 from Nelson, and the way he settled the case has damaged her chances of recovering more from the center.

"I feel used," she said. "He settled for a pittance so he could make payroll." Houdelette said she will need at least seven more years of therapy to control her multiple personalities, and that it will cost her nearly a $1 million.

"He's got no malpractice insurance, so I can't go after him," she said, although she has applied to a Florida Bar fund that compensates victims of unethical lawyers.

Houdelette said she has been contacted by the state attorney's office. Officials there did not return calls Thursday.

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