CLEARWATER — Local foreclosure defense attorney Mark Stopa acted "rude," "belligerent" and "unstable," to the point that two judges threw him out of their courtrooms.
Yet if Stopa sometimes raised his voice too loud, it was only because he was passionate about helping people faced with losing their homes.
Those were the two views that emerged Monday as the Florida Bar began its case against Stopa, 41, accused of six counts of professional misconduct including "boorish" courtroom behavior and mishandling clients’ cases. Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge Linda Allan, serving as a referee in the case, will recommend whether the Florida Supreme Court should punish Stopa — possible penalties range from a public reprimand to disbarment.
Stopa, who has offices in St. Petersburg and Tampa, is one of Florida’s best known foreclosure defense attorneys. By his own estimate, he has represented 7,000 homeowners and during the foreclosure crisis was a widely quoted critic of what he considered illegal and unethical conduct by lenders.
In his opening remarks, one of Stopa’s lawyers, Scott Tozian, acknowledged that his client could be loud — "he is loud (even) when he is in a good mood" — but attributed it to the "zeal and energy" Stopa brings to his work defending homeowners.
But the Bar called on two judges who suggested the zeal went too far.
"If I ruled against his motions, he became very belligerent, making insulting comments to me," said Manatee County Judge Thomas Gallen, testifying by phone. The final straw, he said, came during 2014 hearing in which Stopa refused to leave the lectern even though Gallen had called another case. At that point, the judge said, he ordered Stopa removed from the courtroom and recused himself from any more cases involving the lawyer.
"Have you ever had to seek removal of another attorney," Bar attorney Matthew Flicker asked Gallen, a judge for more than 30 years.
"Never," came the reply. "I have never had a lawyer as belligerent as he was."
Nancy Donnellan, a now-retired Sarasota County judge, said, she too, had Stopa removed from a hearing, the first time she had ever taken such action against an attorney.
"Mr. Stopa became quite loud and extremely difficult," she said, also by phone. "He persisted in arguing, telling the court how it should be done."
Stopa "would throw his arms up in the air," Donnellan continued, and acted "strange, very loud, demanding and rude… he was unstable; you never knew what was going to come next."
A third jurist, Pinellas Circuit Judge Sherwood Coleman, did not criticize Stopa’s courtroom demeanor but said he twice failed to show up for hearings he was required to attend.
Tozian repeatedly pointed out none of the three judges had filed complaints with the Bar despite their experiences with Stopa. Both he and Stopa suggested the that the source of the complaints were attorneys for the banks trying "to take me down," as Stopa put it.
"Part of what’s so difficult for me about this is that I live my life trying to help people," Stopa said, getting emotional. "I certainly have not been perfect but I feel like I’m constantly under attack every time I turn around."
The Bar’s case is slated to take all week, with future witnesses expected to include a St. Petersburg woman who claims she nearly lost her home when Stopa negotiated a cash-for-keys deal with the bank without her knowledge.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate