From Winn-Dixie and Stein Mart to people who can’t pay off credit cards, he has seen it all.
After 28 years on the bench, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Jerry Funk began quasi-retirement Nov. 2, the first day of a three-year term of reserve status.
That status is how Funk, 76, will stay in touch with his colleagues and help his successor and another new bankruptcy judge transition to the U.S. Middle District of Florida bench.
“I don’t play golf. I’m not a fisherman. I read and I jog every day,” Funk said.
“It’s having a place to go for a few hours, but I’ll let the new guys handle the Chapter 11s because they can go on a long time.”
Appointed to the bench in 1993, Funk has presided over many high-profile cases, including the Chapter 11 reorganization of Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. and the personal bankruptcy of former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell.
He presided over the liquidation of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, an Ocala-based wholesale mortgage lender. The case is significant because TB&W was the fifth-largest issuer of Government National Mortgage Association securities when the government shut it down in 2009 and charged it with bank fraud.
The last case of Funk’s full-time career in the bankruptcy court was the liquidation of Jacksonville-based Stein Mart Inc.
A reluctant law student
Funk grew up in North Georgia. He was firmly guided toward college by his father, a Polish immigrant who worked in textile mills, where Funk worked each summer starting before he was a teenager.
“Dad gave me the dirtiest, hardest-working jobs. He didn’t want me to be in the carpet business,” Funk said.
After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1967 with a degree in business administration, Funk said he faced the choice of continuing his education or possibly being drafted and sent to the Vietnam War.
“I never wanted to be a lawyer, but I took some business law courses at Georgia. I said well, let me go to law school.”
After enrolling at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, Funk joined the U.S. Army Reserve and missed a semester while in basic training.
He returned and received his J.D. in 1970.
“When I got out of law school, I said I’d take the Bar exam – one time. I took a review course and they said I had a 70% chance of passing it,” Funk said.
With law school behind him, Funk and his wife, Maxine Witten Funk, planned to move to South Florida, but that plan changed.
Maxine’s parents lived in Jacksonville, so the Funks rented a house from them and Funk started looking for employment after taking the Bar exam in Miami.
“I went to insurance companies trying to get a job because I didn’t think I passed the exam. They wouldn’t hire me. They said that with a law degree, I was overqualified,” Funk said.
He learned from a cousin who practiced law that a small local firm, Coleman Madsen, might be looking to hire someone to draft motions, write letters and do research.
Funk said he went to meet the partners without a resume or transcript, still under the impression there was no way he could have passed the Bar exam.
“They interviewed me on a Friday and called later that day and told me to come to work on Monday. I lucked into a job.”
One of the partners decided to call the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to inquire about the results of the new employee’s exam.
“They told him I passed. I didn’t believe him, so I called the board and confirmed it,” Funk said.
Weeks later, Coleman decided to leave the firm. Madsen did a lot of work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so he spent most of his time in Salt Lake City, where the church is based, Funk said.
“All of a sudden, I was alone in the office. I didn’t have any mentors and I was going up against experienced attorneys. I was getting beaten to death. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I started to enjoy practicing law.”
Learning by doing
As an unintended solo practitioner, Funk found it difficult to build enough business to make a decent living in civil law, so he diversified his practice.
In the early 1970s, the Municipal Court paid private attorneys to represent indigent criminal defendants, he said.
“I made $25 a case. I picked up two or three cases, sometimes four. It was mostly DUIs and I’d get them off on probation,” Funk said.
He later went into partnership with attorney Mark Green and for nearly 20 years practiced personal injury, family and real estate law at Funk & Green.
He also started doing some pro se misdemeanor work in federal court and some simple filings in bankruptcy court.
His limited bankruptcy practice led to becoming a Chapter 13 trustee.
“When I went on the bench, I had all the experience in the world. It probably made me a better judge,” Funk said.
Funk applied to become a bankruptcy judge in 1992 and was appointed a year later.
“The job paid two-thirds of what I made as a lawyer. It was tough, but it turned out to be the best job I’ve ever had,” Funk said.
A sense of humor
As a former somewhat reluctant law student and mostly self-mentored attorney, Funk transitioned that background to the bench.
“I take my job seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. You have to maintain a sense of humor,” he said.
That was evident the day Funk began presiding over Winn-Dixie’s bankruptcy in 2005.
“At the first hearing, I had all these New York lawyers come in. They talked 100 miles an hour. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’re not in New York, you’re down in the South. We talk a lot slower. We hear a lot slower. You guys need to calm down,’” Funk said.
“At the next hearing, none of those guys were there. They had local counsel appear.”
Funk’s judicial demeanor and his sense of humor are appreciated by the attorneys who practice in his court.
“Judge Funk treats people with respect, kindness and oftentimes humor. It makes appearing before him a pleasure. He disarms everyone with his modesty and humility and then wows you with his sneaky Southern intellect. It’s a real gift,” said Allan Wulbern, president of the Jacksonville Bankruptcy Bar Association.
“Cases involving multimillion-dollar business issues can be heard on the same day that an individual is trying to save his or her home from foreclosure and obtain a fresh start,” Wulbern said.
“It takes a special person to be a bankruptcy judge and the best ones never lose sight of how impactful their decisions can be.”
Funk said his philosophy is to treat everyone the same, whether the case is a complex commercial liquidation or consumers who got into too much credit card debt and are representing themselves in court.
“I sit and listen and let them get it off their chest. A lot of people just want their day in court.”
Funk is succeeded by Jacksonville bankruptcy lawyer Jacob “Jay” Brown, who was sworn in Nov. 3.
Another bankruptcy judge also will be appointed in Jacksonville to succeed Judge Cynthia Jackson, who retired from the court in August.
Funk said he was contemplating retirement when his wife of 45 years died in October 2011 after a short illness. He decided to remain on the bench to focus on work, but that was 10 years ago.
“I’m ready now. Enough is enough,” Funk said.
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