Friday, March 24, 2006

Case Law Development: Ohio Justices Disagree on Sanctions for Procrastinating Family Lawyers

In nearly all states, attorneys in family law practice generate more disciplinary complaints than in other fields of law.  While attorneys will argue that the high-emotional stakes of their cases are the cause of this higher complaint rate, all will agree that there are also attorneys practicing family law who simply aren't fulfilling their responsibilities.  What to do with these attorneys?

Justices of the Ohio Supreme Court in two different opinions could not agree on the appropriate sanctions for attorneys who had taken money from clients in family law matters and then not carried out the representation.  In both cases, the attorney's failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities aggravated their sanctions and in both cases, dissenting justices argue that the sanctions imposed were too lenient. 

In Dayton Bar Ass'n v. Stephan, 108 Ohio St. 3d 327; 2006 Ohio 1063; 2006 Ohio LEXIS 656, (March 22, 2006), the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a two-year suspension but stayed the entirety of the suspension on conditions of CLE requirements and supervision of the attoreny's practice management. The attorney had charged his divorce client an additional $350 to prepare a QDRO and then did not do so, requiring that she hire another attorney in order to avoid contempt for failing to prepare the document.  Justices Moyer and O'Connor dissented, arguing that at least a portion of the suspension should be actually imposed rather than suspended.

In Erie-Huron Counties Joint Certified Griev. Comm. v. Huber, 108 Ohio St. 3d 338; 2006 Ohio 1066; 2006 Ohio LEXIS 662 (March 22, 2006) the lawyer was suspended for one year for misconduct in which he took retainers and did little or no work for three clients, made dishonest statements to clients during his representation, failed to provide requested information about malpractice-insurance coverage, and had been unwilling to refund fees to clients whose legal affairs he neglected.  Two of the three cases were divorce actions.  Justice Moyer again dissented, expressing dismay over the court's justifying its leniency because of the attorney's "long career in the legal profession."   Justice Moyer ntoed "That is a new standard. I can only hope that this is the sole case in which it will be applied as the reason for such leniency. We should adopt the recommendation of the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline and issue an indefinite suspension to assure those who use the services of lawyers in Ohio that we are serious about our responsibility to appropriately sanction those lawyers who breach the rules of ethical conduct."

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