|By Kevin Spear, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
Central to the allegations:
The two lawsuits, filed by Morgan & Morgan against
As a result, the insurance company is building a case -- "quite aggressively," a federal judge has observed -- that Deukmedjian was charging "exorbitant amounts" for surgeries performed on auto-accident clients. It alleges that Deukmedjian's bills were then incorporated into lawsuits filed by Morgan & Morgan lawyers as they sought to win payouts from
In a recent court document,
A Morgan & Morgan managing partner denied the "brazen assertions" of
"It's the complete opposite of what
Weinstein said there was no prearranged agreement with Deukmedjian; the surgeon was uncooperative, he said, when the law firm asked him to lower his fees during the customary negotiations to reach settlements on behalf of his patients -- the firm's clients.
Weinstein also said that Newlin, a former deputy sheriff who had generated a high volume of cases for the firm, was the lawyer most involved with the surgeon.
Earlier this month, Newlin denied
"I didn't review bills, and I didn't handle files," he said.
"There's not selective billing, as some of the portions of
Doctors routinely agree to reduce their medical fees during negotiations to settle cases, based on the circumstances of each lawsuit. But lawyers are not allowed to intentionally overstate medical costs in lawsuits, said
There have been no allegations of criminal wrongdoing on the part of Deukmedjian, Newlin or Morgan & Morgan, whose founder,
The two lawsuits began in 2010 as ordinary legal actions by accident victims. (According to state figures, nearly 40 percent of all motor-vehicle crashes last year resulted in litigation.)
One of the suits was filed in state
They became linked when the former Morgan & Morgan paralegal,
In his order, the judge paraphrased several of Zukoski's sworn assertions:
"Morgan & Morgan would then handle the case. There was an arrangement between Deuk Spine and Morgan & Morgan that Deuk Spine would accept half the amount billed for surgery."
"The full amount of the Deuk Spine bill, not the amount Deuk Spine had agreed to accept was used at mediation and trial."
Smith explained further that Morgan & Morgan, according to its records, had referred 176 clients to Deuk Spine within the past four years, while
Morgan & Morgan no longer represents the accident victim in the federal case. Still, "[t]he fulcrum point for the litigation to date has centered on the relationship between [the victim's] initial counsel, Morgan & Morgan law firm, and her treating physician Dr. Deukmedjian," the judge stated in a ruling a month ago.
As the result of Smith's
Asked about that assertion, Weinstein said State Farm, in an attempt to obtain more records from the law firm and doctor, is making unfounded accusations in court, which the federal judge has allowed, he said, as part of the wide latitude typically given lawyers in the early phases of lawsuits. "There's nothing there. It's a dead end," he said.
2,000 pages of emails
Morgan & Morgan lawyers have referred to Zukoski in court documents as a disgruntled ex-employee whose deposition was based on speculation and hearsay. To emphasize that characterization, Weinstein cited a
Zukoski recently told the Sentinel that during her last two years at Morgan & Morgan, she became dismayed by cuts in employee benefits but also distressed by aspects of the firm's practices involving
Morgan & Morgan "can call me anything they like," Zukoski said. "I was open, honest and straightforward." She added: "It's not about me -- it's about the documents."
The more than 2,000 pages of emails that
But Zukoski showed the Sentinel many of the emails she took with her when she resigned. In a
Newlin wrote to the surgeon two months later: "Doc, hopefully you are beginning to see the surgery checks coming in, we are working hard on several more presently."
In her deposition, Zukoski testified that Deukmedjian's fees, as much as
Weinstein showed the Sentinel several internal Morgan & Morgan emails that suggested an ongoing struggle by the firm's lawyers to get Deukmedjian to agree to a reduction in his fees during the customary negotiations used to settle cases.
"This firm was constantly battling Dr. Deuk, asking him to reduce his bills," he said. "... Whatever emails that we have found that she [Zukoski] possibly could be talking about do not say what she says they say."
Zukoski said that, about a year ago, she concluded that the lawsuits involving her employer,
Zukoski, 61, said she had already been preparing to retire after 33 years of legal work when she called The
"There are many, many emails in which Dan has made that relationship crystal clear," the paralegal wrote.
Zukoski said she considered not taking the emails with her and simply telling authorities about them, but "who would have believed me?" Also, she was worried, she said, that Morgan & Morgan would somehow blame the firm's staff for any allegations raised by
Exhausting legal battles
Neither of the personal-injury lawsuits has gone smoothly.
The federal judge, dissatisfied with Deukmedjian's responses during depositions, said the doctor was showing "a lack of respect for the authority of the court." As a result, in an extremely rare move, the judge has ordered that the next deposition be held in the courthouse, where he can preside if needed.
In the state case, Circuit Judge
Zukoski said she has been interviewed by the
"Some of the problems we've had are doctors and lawyers probably working too closely together," Smith said. "They have a plan in place to go after the bowl of money ... where the priority is enriching themselves rather than taking care of the patient, who is secondary -- or a means to the end."
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