Insurance fraud comes in many shapes and sizes. A driver might submit a damage claim for a car purchased just a few days ago. An unethical healthcare provider might inflate a workers’ compensation claim planning to split the extra revenue with an injured employee. Or a commercial property owner might submit a property and casualty claim for structural damage that actually occurred years ago.
“South Florida is the nation’s capital for insurance fraud,” said Maria Elena Abate, a shareholder at Colodny Fass in Sunrise who has been fighting against fraud for more than two decades. “Sometimes the insured is complicit in the crime, but other times it’s done without the policyholder’s knowledge. Many people don’t realize that organized crime is extensively involved in fraudulent claims.”
Since joining law firm Colodny Fass in 1992, Abate has built a stellar reputation in handling complex commercial litigation, including insurance, bad faith and class action defense, as well as employment law and civil rights issues. She co-manages the firm’s Litigation Division, and is a member of the Claims and Litigation Management Alliance, a national organization committed to furthering high standards in client defense.
Abate regularly lectures and teaches other professionals about fraudulent claims, such as a recent talk to the Latin American Association of Insurance Agents. This year she was nominated as “Insurance Defense Attorney of the Year” by the Florida Insurance Fraud Education Committee for her multi-level fraud-fighting and prevention strategies.
Through the years, Abate has learned there are some red flags for insurance fraud. For instance, an attorney or a public adjuster might report a homeowner’s claim rather than the insured, months after the alleged loss and after repairs are done. Another warning sign is the convenient “loss” of a cellphone with photos showing the prior condition of a home or vehicle or a recent change of numbers so an insured has no phone records of calls to medical providers.
“These types of situations need to be investigated carefully for possible fraud,” Abate said, adding that insurers must report suspected criminal actions to the State Department of Insurance Fraud. “As attorneys for the insurers, we don’t get involved in the prosecution of these criminals,” she said. “However, we do provide state investigators whatever non-privileged information they request for their case.”
Launching a Legal Career
Born in New York, Abate came to South Florida with her family as a teenager in 1976. “I loved the culture and the weather here, and it’s been my home ever since,” she said. She enrolled at the University of Miami planning to become a computer programmer like her father, but she soon realized she was a “people person” and majored in psychology with a minor in marketing.
“I knew at that point I didn’t want to go to graduate school in psychology, so I started looking into law school,” she said. “That turned out to be a great career decision. I find the law fascinating, because it touches every aspect of our lives.”
While still in school she began clerking at the Broward County Courthouse, where she was exposed to a wide range of cases. “As a litigator, I enjoy the variety of matters that cross my desk, from class actions to construction, employment and liability defense. There is always something new to learn.”
After earning her juris doctor in 1992, Abate was scheduled to join Colodny Fass on Monday, August 24, just after Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida, leaving much of the region damaged and without power. “My first actual day on the job was the Thursday after Andrew,” she said. “We met in shorts and t-shirts at the Howard Johnson off I-95 at the Golden Glades because it was the only building we could find with a meeting room that had power.”
Abate began handling civil rights and commercial litigation cases, but found herself gravitating toward insurance – a key practice area for the firm. Her colleagues advise clients on insurance regulatory matters and transactions, including start-up companies.
Working with the firm’s managing partner Mike Colodny, as outside general counsel, Abate was instrumental in helping Citizens Property Insurance Corporation continue to pay policyholders’ claims in the wake of several major hurricanes. She also counseled Citizens’ claims handling and managed litigation of all its wind- and water-related cases.
She has also represented major employers and state agencies in employment-related cases involving federal and state labor laws, non-compete agreements, discrimination complaints, constitutional violations, health care issues, whistleblower claims, and breach of contract and unpaid wage claims.
“I have always tried to do what’s best for my clients, while helping as many people as possible, Abate said. “I also believe in balancing work with your personal life.” She is married and has three children, ages 30, 21 and 17. “I am passionate about my family, as well as my clients,” she added. “I believe that a drive to do the right thing is crucial for a successful professional career.”
Abate also feels strongly about the importance of diversity within the legal and insurance industries, and supports initiatives to hire more women and minorities. “We have a rich pool of multicultural talent in South Florida,” she said. “Firms with effective diversity programs can draw from a wider range of experiences to deliver better service to their clients.”
A Community Leader
Abate has long been active in professional organizations. She has served on the Florida Bar’s Executive Committee and was a past chair of the Public Interest Law Section (PILS) as well as the chair of the PILS Legal Needs of Children committee.
In 2005, Abate became a founding board member for the Women’s Breast and Heart Initiative, a community outreach program educating women in underserved communities who find it difficult to visit a doctor or clinic.
“We go to neighborhoods that have been identified as having a high incidence of breast cancer and heart disease and spend our Saturdays knocking on doors,” she said. “We talk to the women, educate them about these conditions and set up screenings for women who qualify. Then we bring in a mobile van to provide convenient access to mammograms, blood tests, and other screening tools.”
Through partnerships with area hospitals and clinics, the tri-county initiative has grown to include cholesterol and glucose screening, as well as healthy eating and nutritional guides. The evidence-based health program and its founder, Andrea Ivory, have been featured as a “CNN Hero.”
Both Abate’s firm and her family have been very supportive of the program and her two sons have been visiting homes with her for the past 11 years. To date, the program’s volunteers have knocked on 105,000 doors in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties.
“Maria serves on our board, helping to guide our mission to reach underserved women,” said Ivory, executive director, Women’s Breast and Heart Initiative. “But she rolls up her sleeves and helps us at every step of the way. She is a brilliant professional with a big heart who is truly a role model for our community.”
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