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Ohio lawyer receives stayed 6 month suspension for providing his electronic signature and attorney-registration number to a Florida law firm and failing to supervise the firm’s activities

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Ohio Supreme Court disciplinary opinion imposing a 6 month stayed suspension of a lawyer who provided his Ohio attorney-registration number and electronic attorney signature to a Florida based corporation and failed to supervise the firm’s activities.  The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Lorenzon, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-4713 (October 16, 2012).  The opinion is here:

According to the opinion, on September 15, 2008, the lawyer entered into an “of counsel” agreement with Consumer Law Group, P.A. (“CLG”), a Florida law firm that negotiated debt on behalf of consumers. The agreement provided that the lawyer would be paid $1,000.00 each year to serve as local counsel for the firm and that he would execute a fee contract with each Ohio client.  To facilitate execution of the fee contracts, the lawyer provided CLG with his electronic signature and Ohio attorney-registration number.

The CLG agreement stated that “(the lawyer) may be needed to answer client questions from time to time”, which it was estimated would be no more than three hours per year.  The lawyer also would not be obligated to represent any clients in court or before any agency or panel.  In September 2008, the lawyer received the $1,000.00 payment and provided his electronic signature and attorney-registration number to CLG.  In May 2009, clients named Floyd and Mary Brown sued the lawyer and CLG to terminate a November 2008 fee contract with CLG.  The lawyer was the only representative of CLG identified in the fee contract, which also had the lawyer’s electronic signature and Ohio attorney-registration number.  The Browns settled their claims against the lawyer and the owner of CLG and received a full refund.

The lawyer testified that he had no knowledge of the Brown fee contract and that he later learned that CLG had used his name, electronic signature, and attorney-registration number to enter into at least three other contracts without his knowledge.  He testified that he believed that he would be responsible for overseeing all of CLG’s Ohio client cases to insure that their representation complied with the “Ohio ethics rules” and in their best interests.  He had approved a blank form fee contract for CLG use for Ohio clients and he believed that he would receive each contract by e-mail, approve it, and send it back to CLG, where his electronic signature would be affixed to the contract.  He believed that this procedure would be easier and take less time than actually signing each contract, scanning it, and sending it back to CLG but he agreed that the agreement with CLG did not state that he was to review each fee contract and that it also authorized CLG to apply or use his signature on correspondence and forms that he had preapproved.  After a hearing, the Ohio grievance panel found that the lawyer engaged in conduct that adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law and recommended a stayed 6 month suspension.

After stating that “the facts of this case are unique”, the opinion found that the lawyer’s conduct was analogous to cases in which lawyers failed to properly supervise their employees.  After considering the mitigating factors and “the absence of any evidence to show that any clients were harmed”,  the opinion agreed with the disciplinary panel and imposed a six-month stayed suspension.

The opinion also stated that “(b)ecause an attorney’s signature, whether actual or electronic, affixed to a document along with an attorney-registration number reflects personal assent to or approval of a document, the attorney must jealously guard its use to protect innocent third parties as well as the attorney’s own reputation.  Here, (the lawyer’s) failure to properly supervise the use of his signature exposed him to unanticipated professional liability at the hands of an allegedly unscrupulous person. But more importantly, by loaning his good name without retaining adequate control over its use, he exposed vulnerable and unsuspecting Ohio consumers to the questionable practices of an out-of-state debt-negotiation firm.  Based upon this conduct, we agree that (the lawyer) engaged in conduct that adversely reflects upon his fitness to practice law…(a)nd, although we agree that the facts of this case are unique, we find that (the lawyer’s) conduct and the attendant risk of harm to third parties are analogous to cases in which attorneys have failed to properly supervise their employees.” (emphasis supplied).

Bottom line:  Lawyer’s beware, with the advent of electronic signatures, it is even more important for lawyers to take steps to protect themselves from the misuse of these signatures by others, including employees and, in this case, out of state law firms.  According to this Ohio opinion, a lawyer who decides to become involved with an out of state law firm as “local counsel” and provide his or her electronic signature and attorney number must insure that the law firm’s activities comply with the ethics rules, which includes supervision of their activities, or risk discipline.

Be careful out there!

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and/or guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Disclaimer: this e-mail does not contain any legal advice 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.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

[email protected]

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