Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the June 14, 2016 Ohio Supreme Court disciplinary opinion suspending a lawyer for one year (with six months stayed) for engaging in voluntary sexually explicit text messages and photos with a client. The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Bartels, Case No. 2015-1638, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-3333 and the opinion is here: https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2016/2016-Ohio-3333.pdf
The Ohio Office of Disciplinary Counsel charged a lawyer named N. Shannon Bartels in 2014 with violating the Ohio Bar rule prohibiting a lawyer from soliciting or engaging in sexual activity with a client, unless a consensual sexual relationship existed before the client-lawyer relationship began. The lawyer was alleged to have had sexual conversations in hundreds of text messages with the client, who had retained her to handle his divorce.
According to the opinion, “(i)n November 2012, Troy Bailey retained Bartels to represent him in his divorce. The divorce was finalized by court entry in July 2013. However, commencing in late February or early March 2013, Bartels and Bailey began exchanging multiple text messages with each other that were sexually oriented. The messages continued for approximately one month and were mutual and reciprocal in their sexual content, but Bartels and Bailey did not actually engage in sexual intercourse with each other.”
After learning of the texts and the relationship, the client’s girlfriend tried to blackmail the lawyer by threatening to send the text messages to authorities if the client did not get what he wanted in his divorce and receive a refund of the fees that the client paid to represent him in the divorce. The lawyer ultimately reported the threats to law enforcement and the client and the girlfriend were charged with crimes. The client and his girlfriend (Ann Perkins) both pled guilty to obstructing justice, a fifth-degree felony, and were placed on probation for two years.
The lawyer had previously been publicly reprimanded in 2010 for engaging in a sexual relationship with a married client and the opinion stated “(b)ecause this is Bartels’ second disciplinary action within five years for a violation of the same rule and her responses to the questions at the hearing indicate a lack of awareness of the nature of her wrongdoing, we conclude that the board’s recommended sanction (of a one year suspension) is the more appropriate option.”
The opinion imposed the one year suspension with six months of the suspension stayed subject to the conditions that the lawyer receive training on proper communications and interactions with clients, and also serve one year of monitored probation when her license is reinstated. In addition to the training and probation, the lawyer must also not commit further misconduct and pay the costs of the proceedings.
Bottom line: Even in our age of text messaging and electronic/digital communications, the conduct of this lawyer seems to be inexplicable. As the Ohio Supreme Court opinion makes very clear, lawyers should never engage in sexual conduct with a client, particularly in divorce/family law matters. The only potential exception is if the consensual relationship began before the representation; however,
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.
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Clearwater, Florida 33759
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