A Palm Beach County circuit judge candidate on Tuesday admitted she had sex with a client she was representing in a 2013 divorce, a violation of Florida Bar rules.
Royal Palm Beach family law attorney Marybel Reinoso Coleman, who has garnered support from the county’s legal elite in a three-person race to replace retiring Circuit Judge Peter Blanc, made the admission in response to two letters the client sent to The Palm Beach Post.
In the letters, Jeffrey Chase claims the affair clouded Coleman’s ability to represent him. “I chose to finish the divorce case as soon as possible due to financial reasons and emotional duress,” Chase wrote. “I firmly believe I was not represented properly and ethically.”
While Coleman disputed Chase’s claims, she didn’t deny the affair. “We had a romantic relationship,” she said.
The liaison lasted roughly a month. They had sex once, she said. When it ended, Coleman and her husband, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Eric Coleman, paid Chase $1,700 to cover the cost of a purse and a bracelet Chase bought her. She couldn’t return the gifts because Coleman’s husband threw them out after she told him about her infidelity.
“This was a horrible mistake I made at a vulnerable time in my life,” she said with her husband of 15 years looking on.
Shortly before she began representing Chase, she said her mother died an agonizing death from pancreatic cancer. In the months before, she cared for her ailing mother while raising 7-year-old twins and continuing to practice law. She said she wasn’t thinking straight and somehow fell under Chase’s spell.
“I’m human. We all make mistakes,” she said.
She and her husband sought counseling, she said. “My husband and I fought really hard to save our marriage,” she said.
She could have reported her transgression to the Florida Bar, which considers such relationships exploitative. But, she said, she didn’t feel it was necessary.
“I knew professionally I had done nothing wrong. We just saw it as a personal, private matter,” she said. “It was something so quick and had no effect on my handling of this very simple divorce.”
The divorce was uncontested. Chase’s wife filed for divorce in October 2013 and before the year was out the couple had signed off on an agreement about how to split the spoils of their roughly two-year marriage.
In fact, in the agreement, his ex-wife agreed not to sue her lawyer, who believed she could have gotten a better deal if she had pressed Chase harder for financial information.
Chase said he was unaware of that provision in the agreement. But, he insisted, his ex-wife got more than she deserved. “I felt like in the long run, her representation cost me more money than it should have along with the mental duress,” he said.
Looking back, Chase said he should have filed a complaint with the Bar years ago. He said he didn’t because his brother works for the Sheriff’s Office. “In hindsight, I should have done it,” he said. “I was more protective of my brother.”
Under Bar rules, such complaints can be filed within six years. Chase said he plans to file one against Coleman within a month.
Further, he said, he has shared information about the affair with Richard Giorgio, a political consultant to Maxine Cheesman, one of Coleman’s opponents in the Aug. 28 election. He also sent a letter to the other candidate in the race, Assistant Palm Beach County Public Defender Joseph Maryuma.
“I believe anybody who is up for judgeship should have impeccable moral character,” Chase said of why he is reopening more than 5-year-old wounds.
While Bar rules prohibit such relationships, Coleman can argue that it didn’t impact the outcome of the divorce.
Since 2006, eight lawyers in Florida have been disciplined for having sex with clients. Punishment ranged from a public reprimand for a lawyer who reported his transgression to 30- and 60-day suspensions for those who were also found to have committed other ethical violations. Two criminal defense attorneys were disbarred for having sex with clients who were incarcerated.
Coleman insists Chase is trying to bully her into quitting — an option she considered and rejected. She said she wants to show her 13-year-old daughter and 26-year-old stepdaughter not to fold under pressure. “I want to make sure my daughters know they have power,” Coleman said. “I’m chasing my dreams and I don’t want someone who is vindictive to bully me, to harass me, to take advantage of me.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that both of Marybel Reinoso Coleman’s opponents - Maxine Cheesman and Joseph Maryuma - received information from Joseph Chase about the affair.