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Ohio lawyer receives 1 year suspension for disclosing attorney/client confidential information to former Ohio State University head football coach Jim Tressel

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss recent Ohio Supreme Court opinion suspending a lawyer for 1 year for disclosing confidential information to former Ohio State University head coach Jim Tressel.  The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Cicero, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-5457 (November 28, 2012).  The opinion is here:

According to the opinion, federal law enforcement officials raided someone named Edward Rife’s house on April 1, 2010 (apparently not an April fool’s day joke though) and seized $15,000.00-$20,000.00 worth of Ohio State University football memorabilia as part of a drug-trafficking investigation.  Rife testified that on April 2, 2010, the day after the raid, he and Epling, a former partner in his tattoo business, met with the lawyer to discuss the criminal case.  The lawyer and Epling both testified and denied that an April 2 meeting occurred, but that the lawyer and Epling had a telephone conversation on April 1 during which they discussed the raid.  On April 2, 2010, the lawyer sent an e-mail to Jim Tressel, who was then the head coach of the Ohio State University football team. In the e-mail, the lawyer told Tressel of the possible association between Rife and team members and provided general information about Rife’s background and the raid on his home.

The Ohio disciplinary board concluded that the lawyer violated Ohio Bar Rule 1.18, which requires an attorney to maintain the confidentiality of information gained from consultation with a prospective client and that he had engaged in conduct which adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law.  The opinion agreed with the board and stated: “(w)e agree  with the board that (the Ohio Bar) has proved by clear and convincing evidence that Rife was a prospective client of Cicero.  As the panel found, the two discussed the possibility of a client-lawyer  relationship; Cicero admitted this in his e-mails to Tressel, and Rife  testified as to the discussion.  Rife’s  testimony was corroborated by Palmer, who testified that Rife had told him soon  after the meeting with Cicero that Cicero had quoted him a fee.  Rife met with Cicero on April 15 to discuss  his case, and Cicero offered legal advice in response to Rife’s questions.”

“While we recognize that some  limitations on the rule’s protection to prospective clients may be justified, those limitations do not come into play here.  Indeed, this case goes to the very heart of confidentiality between a  prospective client and an attorney.  Before obtaining representation, clients must meet with attorneys, and  attorneys often must obtain sensitive information before they can decide whether to represent a client.  Prospective clients trust that their confidences will be protected when they engage in an initial consultation with an attorney.  Cicero’s almost immediate dissemination of  the detailed information that Rife provided on April 15 directly violated that trust.  This conduct violates  Prof.Cond.R. 1.18, as well as Prof.Cond.R. 8.4(h), which prohibits a lawyer from engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to  practice law.”

In deciding on the appropriate discipline, the opinion noted in mitigation that the lawyer had an excellent reputation among attorneys and judges for professional integrity and competence; however, in aggravation, the lawyer was suspended in 1997, his primary motive for disclosing the confidential statements to Tressel was self-aggrandizement, some of his hearing testimony to be disingenuous and not credible by the board, he refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct, and his disclosure of Rife’s involvement in the player memorabilia transactions exposed Rife and his family to criticism and harassment because of the negative impact on the OSU football program.  By a 5-2 vote, the Ohio Supreme Court imposed a 1 year suspension of the lawyer’s license to practice law in Ohio.

Bottom line:  It appears that this lawyer thought that his disclosure of the confidential information to Tressel would buy him some cache with the former head coach and the football program…we now know how that worked out.  Lawyers should be very aware that client confidences gained during a consultation must be kept confidential even if the lawyer is not ultimately retained.

Be careful out there!

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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    That should be 2011, not 2012.

    Thanks for pointing that out, Tom. It was actually 2010 and I have revised the post and corrected the error.

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