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U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down Ohio law which prohibited solicitation of potential workers’ compensation claimants

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which struck down an Ohio law which prohibited solicitation of potential workers’ compensation claimants as a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The case is Bevan & Associates v. Yost, Case No. 18-3262 (U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals) and the July 8, 2019 opinion is here:

The Ohio statute prohibited all solicitations to represent claimants or employers in workers’ compensation cases.  The statute states as follows: “No person shall directly or indirectly solicit authority, or pay or give anything of value to another person to solicit authority, or accept or receive pay or anything of value from another person for soliciting authority, from a claimant or employer to take charge of, or represent the claimant or employer in respect of, any claim or appeal which is or may be filed with the bureau or commission.” Ohio Rev. Code § 4123.88(A).

The Ohio statute had an exception permitting access to journalists and, according to the opinion, “Bevan hired Capital Publishing, a journalistic service, and Regina Mace, a former client and apparent journalist, to use the journalist exception to gain access to the Bureau’s claimant information. Bevan then combined the information it acquired from the journalists with information it had obtained from other outlets (including claimant information obtained from the Bureau prior to the 2006 amendments) to compile a list of individuals who would eventually receive direct mail advertisements. Bevan then sent advertisements to these potential customers.  The advertisements were addressed to ‘INJURED . . . WORKER’ and alerted the worker to the fact that they might be ‘entitled to an additional CASH AWARD for your injury that the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation (BWC) has not told you about!’ R. 38-2, Page ID 172–73. Bevan’s letters also included a disclaimer which stated that ‘This ADVERTISING MATERIAL is not intended to be a SOLICITATION under Ohio’s Rules governing lawyers, as it is unknown whether the recipient is in need of legal services.’”

The law firm filed the federal lawsuit after the journalist received a subpoena from an Ohio grand jury investigating a possible violation of the Ohio law.  Lawyers for the state of Ohio argued that the solicitation prohibition was part of a larger statutory structure restricting access to claimant address information from the state workers’ compensation bureau, which was adopted in 2006.

According to the opinion:  “(T)he First Amendment provides “protection, in pertinent part, against laws ‘abridging the freedom of speech.’ U.S. Const. amend. I. Although the First Amendment ‘accords a lesser protection to commercial speech than to other constitutionally guaranteed expression,’ Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission, 447 U.S. 557, 563 (1980), it nonetheless protects truthful commercial speech that is not related to unlawful activity, id. at 564.”

“Under the framework of Central Hudson, when analyzing regulation of commercial speech, we follow a four-part test. (1) The commercial speech must not be misleading nor relate to unlawful activity, for the First Amendment does not protect ‘commercial messages that do not accurately inform the public about lawful activity.’ Id. at 563–64. If this criterion is satisfied, the regulation can survive only if (2) the government can show a substantial interest in restricting the commercial speech, (3) the regulation at issue directly advances the governmental interest, and (4) the regulation is ‘designed carefully to achieve the State’s goal.’ Id. at 564.  A regulation is ‘designed carefully’ if it directly advances the asserted government interest and there is no more narrow regulation that might achieve the same goals. Id.”

The opinion held:  “Because Ohio’s interest in protecting claimant privacy cannot outweigh Bevan’s right to engage in commercial speech, and because § 4123.88(A) completely bars solicitation, the statute fails the Central Hudson test.”  The opinion further found that, even if the law firm had violated the Ohio law prohibiting access to claimant information, this would not be relevant to the issue of whether the blanket solicitation prohibition is constitutional since, on its face, the statute prohibits all solicitation of claimants, no matter how the information was obtained and, “(a)s written, this prohibition is repugnant to the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Bottom line:  This case is certainly consistent with other federal and U.S. Supreme Court decisions which prohibit states from enacting blanket prohibitions of direct solicitation of clients; however, the opinions do permit the states to place reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on such activities, such as Florida’s 30 day restriction on solicitation of potential personal injury clients and other advertising disclosure/disclaimer requirements.

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.

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