Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Dan Trevas reports on a decision issued today by the Ohio Supreme Court
The Ohio Supreme Court today suspended a Columbus lawyer for his conduct related to a 2015 incident with a bicyclist that led to a subsequent scuffle with a doctor and the attorney stomping on the doctor’s cell phone.
In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court suspended John J. Okuley for one year with six months stayed. The Board of Professional Conduct recommended a two-year suspension with one year stayed, but Okuley objected, claiming a lesser sanction was warranted.
Encounter with Cyclist Escalated
In April 2015, Okuley was driving on a residential street when he stopped his car behind blocked traffic. Eric Hansen approached Okuley’s car from behind on a bicycle and bypassed the line of cars. Okuley believed Hansen smacked or hit his car as he passed. Believing Hansen damaged his car, Okuley followed Hansen to another street. He then drove around Hansen and abruptly stopped in front of him causing Hansen to crash into the rear of the car.
John Bahling, a physician who witnessed the incident, began recording with his cell phone an argument between Okuley and Hansen. Okuley asked Bahling to stop recording, and the incident escalated into a scuffle in which Bahling’s phone fell to the ground. A second witness, Daniel Walker, arrived on the scene. Walker would report that he tried to separate Okuley and Bahling and that when the phone fell to the ground, Okuley stomped on it and smashed it.
When a police officer arrived, Okuley stated that Hansen “purposefully” ran into the back of his car and that he tried to take Bahling’s phone as “evidence.” The officer reported that he told Okuley he could not take another person’s phone, and Okuley replied, “I’m pretty sure you’re wrong officer.... I’m allowed to collect evidence.”
Attorney Charged with Crime
The city of Columbus charged Okuley with a misdemeanor for shattering Bahling’s phone, and Okuley pleadednot guilty. He appeared at the courtroom for an August 2015 trial, but left the courthouse when the proceeding did not start on time. He left without requesting a continuance or informing the court that he was leaving. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was later arrested. In February 2016, Okuley pleaded no contest to the charge and was ordered to pay Bahling $950 for the phone and pay a $100 fine.
Bahling filed a civil lawsuit against Okuley. During the civil proceedings Okuley claimed Hansen twice “intentionally collided” with his car, and that Bahling “needlessly interceded in a minor traffic accident,” and attacked him. He denied destroying the phone and accused Bahling of committing perjury in his statements to the police and to the court during his criminal case. The two eventually settled the case with Okuley paying Bahling $5,000.
Bar Association Investigates
After the conviction, the Columbus Bar Association investigated the mater. During a deposition, Okuley testified that Hansen twice hit his car and Bahling started the fight. The bar association filed a complaint against Okuley with the Board of Professional Conduct, charging Okuley with violating multiple rules governing the conduct of Ohio lawyers.
The board found Okuley broke several rules, including altering or destroying evidence, disobeying court rules, and engaging in conducting involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
The board found Okuley’s testimony during his disciplinary proceeding was “clearly false and contradicted by the testimony of all the witnesses at the scene, as well as the video recording and the recording of Hansen’s 911 call.” It recommended the Supreme Court suspend Okuley for two years with one-year stayed.
Court Considers Sanction
When considering a proposed sanction, the Court examines aggravating circumstances that could increase the punishment for a lawyer and mitigating factors, which could lead to a reduced penalty.
The Court found Okuley engaged in a pattern of misconduct, made false statements during the disciplinary process, and acted with a selfish or dishonest motive. The Court also found he had no prior disciplinary record, submitted evidence of a good reputation and character, and received other civil and criminal sanctions for his acts.
The Court also noted that Okuley entered into a three-year contract with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP), in which he agreed to treatment with a psychologist.
While the board had recommended a two-year suspension, a three-member board hearing panel suggested the one-year suspension, recognizing that Okuley’s conduct did not involve any clients. The Court noted he harmed the public by creating a danger on the roadway for Hansen, acting violently toward Bahling, and engaging in a pattern of deceitful conduct with law enforcement.
The Court ruled that Okuley’s behavior was more in line with prior cases where lawyers who engaged in misconduct then lied to investigators under oath received one-year suspensions. The Court stayed the final six months of his suspension with the conditions that he maintain compliance with his OLAP contract and not engage in more misconduct.