Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Ohio Supreme Court opinion indefinitely suspending an Ohio lawyer who stole over $128,674.30 from mentally ill client, including charging hourly rate for mowing her lawn, helping find an apartment, and shopping for her. The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Buttars, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1511. The April 21, 2020 opinion is here: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2020/2020-Ohio-1511.pdf
According to the opinion, the lawyer first began working for the client, who suffered from mental illness, alcoholism, and depression, in 2015. His law firm agreed to represent the client for $20 per month but the lawyer entered into a separate written fee agreement to represent her “in any capacity” at an hourly billable rate of $250.00. The client told the lawyer that she could not pay him immediately; however, she was going to receive “a substantial inheritance” from her mother’s estate when the mother passed away.
After the client’s mother died in 2015, the lawyer, who had his own law firm at that time, assisted with the administration of the client’s mother’s estate and also performed nonlegal, personal jobs for her, including assisting her with a new apartment, mowing her lawn, and shopping for her. He charged either his hourly rate of $250.00 or the paralegal rate of $150.00 per hour.
The lawyer transferred $10,000.00 from one of the client’s bank accounts in May 2016 for personal and business expenses. He told her that he made a mistake and advised her to sign a promissory note saying that it was a loan; however, he did not advise her that she could seek independent counsel on the issue.
The lawyer was convicted of fourth-degree felony theft from the client in May 2019 and was temporarily suspended based upon that conviction. A disciplinary complaint was subsequently filed against the lawyer for violating rules prohibiting collecting illegal or clearly excessive fees; entering into a business transaction with a client without complying with the requirements of the disciplinary rules; and fraud.
According to the opinion, “(t)he parties stipulated—and the board agreed—that although (the lawyer) transferred $147,710.85 from E.H.’s accounts, he and his law firm had earned only $19,036.55, leaving $128,674.30 as the total amount that he had either stolen or overcharged. (The lawyer) repaid to E.H. $12,500 in January 2017 and $50,000 during his criminal proceeding. Therefore, at the time of his disciplinary hearing, he owed E.H. restitution in the amount of $66,174.30, which included the $29,450 that he had been ordered to make as part of his criminal sentence. Because the criminal case did not account for the amounts that (the lawyer) had overcharged E.H., the restitution amount in this disciplinary matter is substantially greater than that ordered in (the lawyer’s) criminal case.”
The lawyer paid $12,500.00 back in January 2017 and $50,000.00 during the criminal proceedings, which left a balance of more than $66,000.00 owed, including $29,450.00 that the lawyer had been ordered to make as part of his criminal sentence. The opinion found aggravating factors of acting with a dishonest and selfish motive, engaging in a pattern of misconduct, and committing multiple offenses while representing a “particularly vulnerable client”.
According to the opinion, “(t)he presumptive sanction for an attorney’s misappropriation of client funds is disbarment, but that presumption may be tempered with sufficient evidence of mitigating or extenuating circumstances…(t)he board accepted the parties’ proposed sanction and recommends that we indefinitely suspend (the lawyer)—rather than disbar him—based on his acceptance of responsibility, sincere remorse, and commitment to make things right with E.H. To support its recommendation, the board cited two cases in which we indefinitely suspended attorneys who similarly misappropriated funds while serving in positions of trust.”
The opinion imposed an indefinite suspension, with no credit for the time that he was suspended under the interim felony suspension and his reinstatement was conditioned upon proof of the lawyer’s payment of the remaining $66,000.00 owed his client.
Bottom line: This lawyer admitted stealing or “overcharging” $128,674.30 from the client; however, he was indefinitely suspended and not disbarred. This most likely would not happened in Florida (or most other jurisdictions).
Be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2999 Alt. 19, Suite A
Palm Harbor, Florida
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
Please note: My office has moved and the new office address is 2999 Alt. 19, Palm Harbor, FL 34683. All other contact information remains the same.