Hopeless Cases

In Joey Zumpano's book, there's no such thing

Published in 2009 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By Milly Dawson on June 15, 2009


When Joey Zumpano scored a victory over Fidel Castro, the sense of satisfaction was personal. During the Cuban Revolution, the Miami attorney’s great uncle had been imprisoned, then exiled, after Castro turned on him. So when Zumpano heard a few years ago that Janet Ray Weininger—whose CIA-pilot father was shot down in 1961 by Castro’s forces—wanted to sue the Cuban dictator, he was only too happy to help.

That’s how Zumpano and law partner Leon Patricios found themselves going up against Fidel and Raoul Castro, the Cuban Army and the Republic of Cuba in 2004 over an atrocity committed during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Pilot Thomas Ray had been only slightly injured after his plane was shot down, but his Cuban captors fatally shot him in the head as he lay recovering in his hospital bed. Ray’s daughter wrote pleading letters to Castro for years, begging for the return of her father’s body, to no avail. Instead, the dictator mailed a picture of a pilot’s bloodied corpse, and kept Ray’s remains frozen in Cuba for 18 years before finally returning them.

Zumpano’s team—which included Patricios and various attorneys outside the firm—not only won an $87 million judgment against Castro’s government, they managed to collect a sizable amount of it: $24 million went to their client, Weininger, and to her father’s estate.

The team came up with a novel legal maneuver to collect the funds: It took the 2004 Florida judgment against Cuba to the New York courts for enforcement, since Cuban money seized by the U.S. government after Castro took control was frozen in New York accounts.


A Modest Powerhouse

Lawyer after lawyer had told Weininger her case was unwinnable. Zumpano, 39, doesn’t think much of that word.

If you ask him, lawyers too often sidestep difficult cases. “They will be gauging whether something is reasonable, as opposed to asking whether or not it is possible,” he says. “If you limit yourself to the reasonable, then you may miss the opportunity to obtain extraordinary results.”

It’s that spirit that has driven the rapid worldwide growth of the firm he launched six years ago with Patricios and David Winker. In addition to its Coral Gables office, Zumpano, Patricios & Winker has a satellite office in Key West and a burgeoning international presence. Zumpano practices domestic and international health-care law—representing health-care institutions—as well as international corporate law. The two areas often overlap as U.S. health-care organizations expand overseas. The firm also does pro bono work for individuals having difficulties getting payment from health insurers.

In planning their firm’s international business model, Zumpano and his partners took note of hostile sentiment overseas against corporate globalism. They drew lessons from events such as the riots during the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001. “The protesters were upset because companies were coming into their countries and removing opportunities from local businesses in what they perceived as an imperialistic approach,” says Zumpano.

He decided to run his business abroad differently. “We took as our founding principles humility, perseverance, generosity and trust,” he says. Rather than competing with foreign law firms, ZP&W tries to cooperate with them, each bringing its own special skills. “We handle the U.S. side of the matter; the foreign firm handles the local side,” he says. “We disclose our fees and we accept joint responsibility.”

“New globalism,” as Zumpano calls his approach, has worked well: ZP&W satellite offices have sprouted within the welcoming walls of foreign law firms in 18 locations. Another is slated to open this year in Eastern Europe.

ZP&W also stresses diversity at home. “Having attorneys from different cultures increases effectiveness and understanding for clients from those cultures,” says Zumpano, whose firm has been lauded by a local business publication as the most diverse in South Florida.

Patricios says of his law partner, “I’ve never heard Joey say that something can’t be done. If someone wanted to pick up a truck and carry it to the top of Mount Everest, he’d take a long look at it and come up with a strategy. It comes down to perseverance.”


A Lifelong Passion for Justice

Zumpano’s father is a retired neurosurgeon whose ancestors hailed from Italy. His late mother, a teacher and homemaker, was a Cuban exile. His parents raised their family in South Dade County and the Keys. After graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1991, then earning his law degree at Georgetown and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University, Zumpano returned to Flroida.

As he grew up, hearing about the events in the lives of his maternal family inspired him to fight for justice.

“When you practice international law, you have the opportunity to stress the importance of compliance and the rule of law in your cases and transactions,” he says. “You become an example of justice.”

The cousin for whom Zumpano is named, Jose Ignacio Marti Santacruz, was tortured and killed by the Batista regime while doing humanitarian work in Cuba. Then there was the great uncle, Enrique Canto Bory, who served as treasurer of Castro’s Revolution. But Castro turned on him when the Revolution veered toward communism and Bory remained true to democratic principles and Catholicism.


Another ‘Hopeless’ Case

Another so-called impossible case that Zumpano and his team won involved a client who had gone through a divorce in 1999. Her husband had run off with all of their considerable money, leaving her to support their two small children.

The couple had a home in the Bahamas, and the husband stashed most of the money in a Bahamanian trust. Lawyers told her the funds were irretrievable.

But Zumpano found a local attorney in the Bahamas and went to work, figuring out first how to freeze the funds. Then he proved to the Bahamian judge that the husband had absconded with the money and fraudulently used a trust to protect the assets. The husband lost four appeals to unfreeze the assets. Finally, after a seven-year battle, the judge ruled that the funds should be returned to the wife. He praised the legal work done by Zumpano’s group and condemned the husband’s behavior in scathing terms.


A Lifelong Love of the Sea

As a boy, Zumpano wiled away many hours boating and fishing with his older brother at the family’s second home on Key Largo, not far from Miami.

Today, he and his wife, Grace, who is also a ZP&W partner, own a weekend home on Key Largo near his childhood home. Married since 1997, the couple have three young children. During the workweek, the family lives in Gables by the Sea.

Zumpano seems drawn to people in need of help—or perhaps it’s the other way around. Even at his weekend home, Zumpano can’t seem to avoid becoming embroiled in legal matters. One evening in October 2007, he and a colleague were relaxing on the balcony of his Key Largo home after a firm party. Around midnight they heard muffled cries that sounded desperate.

The two men rushed into Zumpano’s fishing boat and plied the familiar shallow waters, through the rain, hugging the mainland. Zumpano radioed the Coast Guard to tell them he was looking for the source of the cries.

In the distance, the men saw a glimmering fire on a small island. It came from a zone Zumpano knew was too shallow for his boat to navigate any further.

He yelled out his identity in Spanish. The voices shouted back that they were 22 Cubans—one of whom was seriously dehydrated—trying to make it to the U.S.

He told them to listen carefully and shouted: “I am also an attorney, here with my colleague.” He assured them he would attest to the fact that they had achieved “dry-foot” status.” A roar of cheers went up. “Dry foot” status is a special status that allows Cubans who touch U.S. soil to enter the country legally.

Zumpano and his law partner waited for the Coast Guard to come. All 22 Cubans were safely rescued, and Zumpano got home around 4 a.m. 

When Zumpano talks about the Cuba case and the maritime rescue, he speaks as though such dramas are things of the past.

Not likely.

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