Monday, October 16, 2017

Former Judge Faces Discipline

A third bar discipline case on the Ohio Supreme Court docket this week

Ohio State Bar Association v. Lance T. Mason, Case no. 2017-0794
Cuyahoga County

The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct recommends that former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Lance T. Mason be disbarred from practicing law in the state following a felony conviction for assaulting his wife in August 2014. Mason argues for an indefinite suspension, which is a lesser punishment that offers the possibility of working again as an attorney.

Judge Becomes Violent in Vehicle
After more than eight years of marriage, Mason and his wife, Aisha Fraser, decided to separate in March 2014. Mason served as a judge on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court at the time. The couple have two children. After the separation, they shared custody of the young children and often spent time together, going on dates and to church.

On Aug. 2, 2014, Judge Mason, Fraser, and their children attended a funeral for the judge’s aunt. During the drive to Fraser’s home after the funeral, Judge Mason and Fraser discussed their relationship. With the children in the backseat, Judge Mason, who was driving, became upset and hit Fraser in the head; banged her head against the car window, armrest, and dashboard; and bit her on her face. Fraser tried to leave the car, and Judge Mason pulled her back. She eventually escaped the vehicle but fell, and Judge Mason stopped the car, located her, kept striking her, and bit her again.

Leaving Fraser on the road, Judge Mason returned to his vehicle and drove to his house with the children. He called his sister, asking her to pick up the children because he planned to shoot himself. Shaker Heights police arrested Judge Mason. Fraser was hospitalized and required surgery to repair a fracture under her eye.

When the judge was indicted, the Ohio Supreme Court disqualified him from his judicial position. On Sept. 16, 2015, the trial court accepted Mason’s guilty plea to attempted felonious assault and domestic violence, and sentenced him to a 24-month prison term and a 6-month jail term to be served concurrently. Mason was released on June 27, 2016.

Mason Violated Ethics Rules for Judges and Attorneys, Board Finds
The Ohio State Bar Association investigated charges against Mason alleging that he violated attorney and judicial ethical rules in the state. After considering the bar association’s complaint, reviewing the evidence, and conducting a hearing, a panel of the professional conduct board concluded that Mason violated the judicial conduct rule that requires judges to promote public confidence in the judiciary’s independence, integrity, and impartiality. The panel also found that Mason’s illegal act reflected poorly on his trustworthiness and his fitness to practice law.

The professional conduct board’s report to the Supreme Court lists the following mitigating factors, which may be considered for a less-severe sanction:

  • no prior disciplinary record
  • cooperative during disciplinary investigation
  • removed from his position as judge
  • incarcerated for his actions
  • penalized with a $150,000 settlementof a civil case Fraser filed against him
  • apologized to Fraser in open court during the civil case
  • submitted 37 character reference letters

The report also identifies several aggravating circumstances, which may be considered to impose a more severe punishment. The board notes the vulnerability of Mason’s former wife and his children and the harm Mason’s actions caused. Also, Mason didn’t adequately explain why he assaulted his wife; he hasn’t indicated that the violent conduct won’t happen again; and, although he has met with a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, and pastor, he “has not fully engaged in the redemptive process,” the report states. 

Board Proposes Disbarment
Noting that the Supreme Court holds judges to the highest ethical standards, the board recommends that the Supreme Court disbar Mason, which means he will never be permitted to practice law in Ohio again.

Mason, who has been a county prosecutor, state representative, and state senator, submitted objections to the board’s proposed punishment of disbarment. When one side in a disciplinary case objects to the board’s findings or recommendations, the Ohio Supreme Court agrees to hear oral arguments in the matter. The disciplinary case will be heard Oct. 18 in Marietta during the Court’s Off-Site Court Program in Marietta.

Former Judge Believes Remorse and Other Factors Justify Lesser Punishment 
Mason argues that the panel didn’t adequately inform the board about the testimony given by five of his witnesses. He describes testimony from his father’s first cousin, who is also a pastor; his sister; another relative; a former employee; and a former teacher and principal, who worked with Mason on legislation and was later appointed to oversee Mason’s visitations with his children. The witnesses spoke about his good moral character, the one-time nature of the assault, his statements taking responsibility for his actions, and his commitment to his children both before and after the incident. Because the panel didn’t give this information to the board, the board wasn’t able to make an informed decision about his punishment, Mason contends.

“Nothing could be more misleading to the Board than the Panel’s obvious abdication of its responsibility to report relevant facts provided by these witnesses during their testimony,” his brief to the Court states.

Mason also asserts that the panel didn’t address the substance of the character letters sent on his behalf, which showed how isolated the assault was and reflected his genuine remorse for his actions. He points to his voluntary and continuing participation in counseling as well. In addition, all evidence, including an email from Fraser, supporting the value of permitting Mason to continue as an attorney “was ignored and not reported to the Board,” the brief argues.

Mason notes that, leading up to the assault, his father died, then his mother died, his house flooded twice and became infested with rats, his daughter has health issues related to Down syndrome, and a few days before the assault he had gone to the local hospital’s emergency room with chest pains.

“[T]he record simply does not support the aggravating factors found by the Panel but instead support mitigating factors which should serve to temper the sanction imposed by this Court,” his brief states.

Mason points out that the bar association proposed an indefinite suspension to the board, and he asks the Court to impose that punishment with credit for the time he has been suspended since his conviction in September 2015.

Bar Association States Evidence Supports Board’s Recommendation 
The state bar association responds that the panel was in the best position to consider the evidence, aggravating factors, and mitigating factors, despite Mason’s interpretation of the evidence.

The bar association notes that Mason’s children are still in counseling, which began as a result of the assault, and that his visits with them are supervised. Mason has provided no evidence or testimony that a mental health or substance abuse disorder contributed to the assault or that shows a clear connection between the attack and the stressors in his life at the time, the bar association states. While Mason has attended counseling with a psychologist and psychiatrist, the bar association argues that he submitted no treatment plan to the panel and that he was ordered by the court when released to complete a counseling program – a requirement that contrasts with Mason’s claim that the counseling is voluntary. The board decided that the factors supporting a lesser punishment for Mason were insignificant when compared with the offenses, and that conclusion was reasonable based on the evidence, the bar association maintains.

In the bar association’s view, disbarment is appropriate “for a violent assault committed by a sitting member of the judiciary against his wife and witnessed by his young children ….” Noting that disciplinary punishments are designed to protect the public and the integrity of the judicial branch, the bar association also argues that the Supreme Court holds judges to a higher standard of integrity and ethical conduct because of their positions of public trust.

However, if the Court determines that the evidence supports a less-severe sanction, the bar association recommends an indefinite suspension with no credit to Mason for the time he has been suspended under the Court’s order after his conviction. The bar association’s position is that the balance of the aggravating factors against the mitigating circumstances in this case doesn’t support any credit for time served.

 Kathleen Maloney

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing Lance T. Mason: Richard Alkire, 216.573.0801

Representing the Ohio State Bar Association: Kelly Heile, 513.887.3474

(Mike Frisch)

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