The billionaire lawyer who made a splash with UM stadium pitch has a long Miami history [Miami Herald]
Miami Herald (FL)
In his long career as a Miami lawyer, John Ruiz has played many parts.
He’s forayed into high school sports broadcasting, hosted a Spanish-language show on cable TV, worked on hundreds of class-action lawsuits, taken over a famed Miami power boat company and attempted to run a Homestead baseball stadium that was eventually shuttered.
But his most recent venture running a health insurance claims firm has put his family in a “very good” financial situation — so good that he’s making grand but undefined gestures about building a stadium for the University of Miami Hurricanes football team, which has played its home games at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens since the Orange Bowl closed in 2008.
His Sunday night stadium idea announcement got the attention of Miamians and Hurricanes fans around the country, some of whom cheered him on and others who scoffed at what they deemed a pie-in-the-sky idea by a billionaire in Coral Gables, a city known for its stringent zoning codes and outspoken neighbors.
The vague and seemingly sudden plan also drew criticism from the city of Coral Gables and was dismissed by Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which owns the lot where Coral Gables Senior High School — a possible location for Ruiz’s project — sits. Former University of Miami President Donna Shalala told CBS4 News that Ruiz’s idea is “ridiculous.”
But Ruiz said during a Wednesday night interview at his $46 million mansion in the exclusive Gables Estates Club neighborhood that this is the “perfect time” to pitch such an idea, adding that his company is gearing up to go public in January.
“I felt like I was in the perfect position at the perfect time to not only deploy monetary assets but really get into the University of Miami and work with the university,” Ruiz told the Miami Herald.
Ruiz’s lifestyle is certainly that of the mega-wealthy. He spoke to the Herald from his backyard, which abuts a canal where his Cigarette boat and 150-foot yacht are docked. Around the corner from his office is a private salon and gym, with guest quarters and multiple swimming pools. Ruiz’s purchase of the property last year was the second-most expensive single-family home sale ever in Miami-Dade County, according to The Real Deal.
“I am at a different level financially, because of the success the company is at,” he said after moving from the backyard to a room outside his office with a floor-to-ceiling wine refrigerator, though Ruiz doesn’t drink. “I can give back a lot more than I would have ... I have always made money, but not at this level.”
He recently donated $1 million to the families and victims of the Surfside building collapse, some of whom he represents legally. On Thursday, he announced a $10 million donation to a well-known Miami-Dade County private school for a new sports facility. In the “near future,” he has planned a donation to the University of Miami “north of $50 million.”
Ruiz said his goal with the stadium is to get the University of Miami football team “back to the swag” it had when he was in school in the late 1980s. He has familial ties to the school, too. Both his sons played baseball there, and his daughter is currently a UM law student.
Ruiz says he has been involved with the selection of new University of Miami football coach and former Hurricanes offensive lineman Mario Cristobal, to whom Ruiz is related by marriage.
The committee Ruiz formed for the stadium idea is made up of himself, MSP firm executive and former WSVN-7 News broadcaster Diana Diaz, University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute Director Lee Kaplan, MSP Recovery attorney Gino Moreno, Mocca Realty broker Alex Pirez and Ruiz’s three children: Johnny, 27, Alex, 22, and Cristina, 24.
Also involved are former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, Hurricanes football alum and former fullback Alonzo Highsmith, Hurricanes football alum and Chicago Bears linebacker DJ Williams and Hurricanes baseball alum and free agent Jon Jay, Ruiz announced on his social media.
Ruiz dismissed criticism of his effort. He said his team is working on feasibility studies and meeting with planners to talk out ideas. On Saturday, he plans to take a helicopter ride over the county to get ideas for a potential stadium.
“In a jury trial, you don’t convict the person before you hear the evidence and you don’t acquit the person before you hear the evidence. Listen to the evidence and then make a decision,” he said.
Ruiz’s partner at MSP Recovery, former Coral Gables Commissioner Frank Quesada, described Ruiz as “the kind of guy who wants to get the conversation going.”
“He just wants a better solution than what we currently have,” Quesada said of the stadium, which ostensibly would fill a need some see for the university’s football team to play close to campus. “In order to do that, sometimes you have to run through walls. When you are the first mover doing things, you will get attacked. He is OK being that person. This is forcing the conversation.”
A history in Homestead
A potential Coral Gables stadium project wouldn’t be Ruiz’s first try at entering the sports arena in Miami-Dade County. In 2011, his company La Ley Sports had plans to turn an aging baseball stadium in Homestead into “a first class youth and athletic sports venue” when he signed the lease-to-own contract. But after Ruiz put millions into the project, La Ley fell behind on utility payments and rent and tied the city up in lawsuits for several years. Ruiz sublet the stadium to a company that officials said had underage ball players living in the locker rooms. He says sometimes players stayed late, but that the city and tenant had a misunderstanding.
Ruiz says the complex was operating “super well,” and maintains that he “got caught in the crossfire” of personal vendettas.
“I made a decision to stop paying because they weren’t allowing me to conduct business,” he said.
Eventually, the city declared La Ley in default on its lease. The city sued on the collection of pending rent, and won. Ruiz sued the city and won on an insurance claim. He also faced several lawsuits with contractors related to the complex that complained they weren’t paid during that time, all of which were settled.
“It ended up being a wash and we all walked away,” Ruiz said.
Homestead Mayor Steven Losner, who wasn’t elected until after the La Ley Sports feud, said he doesn’t think the project would have been approved with a different mayor and commission.
He would not do business with Ruiz if approached, he said.
“It became very nasty and adversarial,” he said.
Ruiz, 54, was raised in Miami by Cuban immigrants who came to Florida with his two older sisters just before he was born. He attended public schools before attending Interamerican Military Academy for high school. He went to University of Miami for his undergraduate degree, and graduated from Nova Southeastern University’s law school in 1991.
After Ruiz graduated from law school, he says he started his first law practice by charging $800 on a Discover credit card he borrowed from his father. Since then, he says he’s always worked for himself, taking on cases against insurance companies, personal injury cases, pharmaceutical and medical device cases and, eventually, class action lawsuits.
It was in 2009 while Ruiz was litigating large class action cases that he realized that health insurers were using the wrong laws to try to recover money that was being lost through improper payments. The realization developed into Ruiz’s newest venture in 2014 — MSP Recovery.
Ruiz’s firm was founded around a 1980 federal law that requires healthcare providers to comply with Medicare secondary payer laws, meaning healthcare providers are not supposed to bill the government if there’s another payer that should have paid those bills, such as an auto insurer. If they do bill the government first, those providers can be penalized because government-funded insurers such as Medicare are supposed to be “secondary payers.”
MSP Recovery uses software Ruiz developed to sift through claims and find instances where claims should have been paid by the responsible party instead of the government. Once those claims are identified, Ruiz and his team sue to pursue the recoveries and collect double damages, using the money to make clients whole and pay themselves.
The approach is unique, Ruiz said, and he once faced a former employee trying to sell his ideas to Apple Health and Google Health, he said. Ruiz sued and won, and when he ran into the employee in court for other purposes in 2016, the employee allegedly grabbed his buttocks, squeezed it three times and said “good fucking day, Ruiz,” according to court records.
Ruiz pressed battery charges, there was a hearing, and the case was settled a couple years later.
Ruiz founded the firm in 2014 with his partner, Quesada, whom he met when Quesada appeared on his television show while campaigning for Coral Gables City Commission. Current Coral Gables Vice Mayor Michael Mena works for the firm, too.
The firm has since grown to employ more than 30 lawyers, Ruiz said, and the company is expected to go public in January through a merger with special purpose acquisition corporation Lionheart Acquisition Corp. II.
The deal valued Ruiz’s stake at nearly $23 billion, according to Bloomberg.
According to its own projections in a presentation to investors, the company said it expects revenues of $992 million in 2022, $3.1 billion in 2023 and $23.8 billion in 2026. However, it relies on estimates of what its claims are potentially worth. MSP will generate precisely $0 in revenues this year, according to its projections.
Ruiz said the predicted revenue is so low because a new company was formed when the merger happened.
“You start from zero, but we have a substantial amount of business,” he said.
The special acquisition corporation, or SPAC, is run by wealthy developer and investor Ophir Sternberg, who met Ruiz when Ruiz purchased his condo at the Ritz-Carlton Residences on Miami Beach.
Sternberg, a former member of the elite combat unit in the Israel Defense Force, teamed up with Ruiz in May to buy Miami power boat company Cigarette Racing Team. The company’s daily operations are run by Ruiz’s three children.
While some in the community are skeptical of his recent philanthropic ways, Ruiz said the merger and acquisition of his company will soon make him the wealthiest person in the state of Florida and in the top 20 in the country.
Ruiz called MSP Recovery “like a small family, but very powerful.”
“I think the sky’s the limit for us,” he said. “We are going to see some very, very impressive and spectacular things.”