Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Ohio Supreme Court opinion suspending a former judicial officer for 2 years with 18 months stayed for, inter alia, engaging in sex with a defendant as a judicial officer and trust account misconduct while a lawyer. The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Williams, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-827 (March 8, 2016). The disciplinary opinion is here: https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2016/2016-Ohio-827.pdf and the link to the oral argument in the case is here: https://www.ohiochannel.org/video/case-no-2015-0293-disciplinary-counsel-v-orlando-joseph-williams.
According to the opinion, the lawyer was appointed as a municipal court judge in March 2009 and lost an election to retain the seat in the November 2009 general election. The municipal court judges later appointed him to serve as a magistrate, and part of his duties was to oversee eviction cases. While presiding over a case where a landlord sought to evict a woman identified in court documents as A.B., the then magistrate judge began a sexual relationship with A.B. and failed to recuse himself from the case. The municipal court judges later learned A.B. had been arrested for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated and was referring to the judge as her boyfriend. The lawyer admitted the relationship to the judges, recused himself from A.B.’s case, and resigned.
After resigning as magistrate, the lawyer worked at a Columbus, Ohio law firm and was subsequently terminated in May 2013. After he lost his position at the law firm, the lawyer and A.B. purchased a used car. The lawyer made false statements on the application, including listing an address where he had not lived for more than a year and falsely stating that he made a salary with the law firm that he had just left. A.B also altered one of the lawyer’s paystubs to get the car loan with the lawyer’s knowledge and permission, and the loan later became delinquent.
The lawyer also represented a woman seeking to be appointed to manage the financial affairs of an estate in Summit County Probate Court. The probate court approved a $25,000.00 wrongful-death settlement to the estate. The funds were deposited into the lawyer’s trust account and he made several payments on behalf of the estate; however, he failed to comply with a court order to pay approximately $10,800.00 for an annuity to benefit the decedent’s three children and apparently used the funds to benefit himself and A.B.
In April 2011, the probate court, assuming the annuity had been purchased, ordered the lawyer to close the estate. The lawyer informed the court that he had kept the funds in his client trust account and was going to invest in a money-market account to benefit the children. The funds had still not been transferred over one year later, and the lawyer had removed nearly all of the funds. The lawyer transferred $10,000.00 of personal funds back into the account in May 2013; however, he depleted the account again and had to secure and use his personal funds to replace the missing funds. Although the lawyer eventually replaced the $10,800.00, financial experts estimated that the children lost about $9,000.00 due to the lawyer’s failure to obtain the annuity.
The Ohio Disciplinary Counsel’s office filed complaints against the lawyer alleging violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct for his failure to disqualify himself while he was engaging in a sexual relationship with a party and for violations of attorney disciplinary rules, including engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation; not acting with reasonable diligence when representing a client; and engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
The lawyer testified he did not intend to continue to serve as the magistrate in A.B.’s eviction case but he did not know how to recuse himself. He also said A.B abused him and that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by their relationship. He entered into a five-year contract with Ohio’s Lawyer Assistance Program for the psychological issues.
The opinion stated that the lawyer failed to establish that PTSD played a role in his misconduct as an attorney; however, “he practiced law without incident for more than 20 years before he commenced his improper relationship with A.B.” The majority of justices found that the a two-year suspension with 18 months stayed was appropriate as long as the lawyer complied with his OLAP contract, continued counseling for PTSD, did not engage in further misconduct, and made full restitution to the children from the estate. Two justices dissented and stated that proper sanction would be a two-year suspension without a stay.
Bottom line: This lawyer effectively will have only a six month suspension if he complies with the conditions of the disciplinary order; however, he was found to have failed to recuse himself as a judicial officer while having a sexual relationship with a party and also misused (and arguably misappropriated) trust funds, resulting in a loss of $9,000.00 to the beneficiaries, who were children. This lawyer may not have had such a positive result if the misconduct occurred in Florida or another jurisdiction which presumes disbarment when a lawyer misappropriates trust funds.
Be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and 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