MANATEE -- Circuit Judge John Lakin of Bradenton has been formally charged with misconduct by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission for requesting tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays game from a law firm while he was presiding over their client's case against Walmart.
Lakin was presiding over the case of Wittke v. Walmart in June, in which the plaintiff accused Walmart of negligence, causing her to fall and injure herself. There was a four-day trial before a jury, which found on June 25 that Walmart was not liable for her injuries.
The day after the verdict, Lakin asked his judicial assistant to contact the law firm Kallins Little & Delgado to request tickets for that night's game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox. Lakin received five tickets valued at about $100 each, and Lakin said he used two and threw three away. Lakin earned his undergraduate degree from Boston College and his law degree from the Massachusetts School of Law.
"The tickets you received were excellent seats, being located seven to eight rows back, between home plate and first base," state the notice of charges, which was released Monday.
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Six days later, the attorneys with the law firm filed a motion to set aside the jury's verdict in Walmart's favor and conduct a new trial. That motion was heard on Aug. 21, but Lakin did not issue a ruling at that time.
On Aug. 25, Lakin requested and received five more tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays game from the law firm.
The next day, Lakin issued a ruling to set aside the jury's ruling and grant a new trial.
"No reasonable jury could have returned a verdict finding that the Defendant was not at least partially liable for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff based on the evidence presented at trial," Lakin wrote in the ruling.
Lakin acknowledged he had never before overturned a jury verdict, according to the notice.
While the case was pending, Lakin requested and received five tickets to four separate Major League Baseball games from Kallins Little & Delgado. It was not disclosed to Walmart, the other party in the case, at that time.
Circuit Judge Charles E. Williams, chief judge for the 12th Judicial District, told Lakin his conduct was inappropriate and told him to report it to the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Lakin disclosed that he had received tickets from the firm both to the JQC and to Walmart attorneys, but said nothing about the timeline of events.
The JQC found that Lakin has received baseball tickets from two other law firms that have appeared before him. In May 2015 he received two Rays tickets from attorney Ed Sobel and in 2013 he received two tickets from the Gallagher & Hagopian law firm.
"Your actions constitute inappropriate conduct demonstrating a present unfitness to serve," the notice concludes.
Sobel said in a phone call Wednesday that he sold baseball tickets to Lakin, because he has season tickets and sells often to members of the local legal community.
John "Jack" Weiss, a Tallahassee-based attorney specializing in Florida Bar grievances, is representing Lakin, and said the tickets did not influence Lakin's decision in that case.
"There's no doubt that he accepted the baseball tickets," Weiss said. "But the implication that that had any effect on his decision in the Wittke case is false."
When asked about the timing of the decision compared to the timing of the baseball ticket requests, Weiss said Lakin had made decisions before that point. He added that though Lakin had never overturned a jury verdict before, he had only been serving on a civil bench for five months at the time. Lakin was elected to the bench in 2012 and has served on the criminal bench since then. His term ends in 2019.
"This is a relatively new judge," Weiss said.
Lakin also disqualified himself from presiding over the case in October, Weiss said.
The rules of the JQC require judges to not conduct activities outside of court that cast reasonable doubt on a judge's ability to be impartial, undermine the judge's independence or demean the judicial office.
Specifically, a rule prohibits judges from "accepting gifts, favors, bequests or loans from lawyers or their firms if they have come or are likely to come before the judge."
Dennis Menendez, spokesman for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, said the chief judge does not have the authority to suspend Judge Lakin while he is under investigation and that authority lies with the Florida Supreme Court.
"Chief Judge Williams will have no further comment on this matter," Menendez said.
Florida Bar rules also state that a lawyer "shall not seek to influence a judge, juror, prospective juror or other decision maker except as permitted by law or the rules of court."
A call to the Kallins Little & Delgado firm was not returned Tuesday.
Lakin has a right to file a written answer to the charges within 20 days. The Florida Supreme Court has ultimate jurisdiction on the case and will assess appropriate penalties if Lakin is found guilty of the charges.