Monday, January 11, 2021

Disbarment Sought For Teacher Who Became Lawyer

An oral argument before the Ohio Supreme Court on January 12 is summarized by Dan Trevas

Disciplinary Counsel v. Anthony J. Polizzi Jr., Case No. 2020-0740
(Lake County)

In March 2018, Anthony Polizzi Jr. pleaded guilty to eight counts of gross sexual imposition and sexual battery based on relationships he had with two teenage students when he was a high school teacher from 2006 to 2010. Between the time he was asked to leave Cornerstone Christian Academy and the date of his conviction, Polizzi earned a law degree, passed the bar, and practiced law until he was indicted for the sex crimes.

The Board of Professional Conduct proposes disbarring Polizzi not only because of the convictions, but also for not being truthful about the incidents once he became a lawyer and for not taking full responsibility for his actions. Polizzi, 42 years old at the time of his disciplinary hearing, is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to indefinitely suspend him with the hope of regaining the ability to practice law again once he completes his 28-year prison sentence. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court will hear arguments by videoconference, which will be livestreamed.

Teacher Abuses Two Students
Polizzi began teaching at Cornerstone in 2006. Two girls, identified as E.L. and N.M., were both students of Polizzi’s at Cornerstone. E.L.’s mother also taught at Cornerstone and was in the process of divorcing E.L’s father, who was an alcoholic. She asked Polizzi if he would help E.L. by talking her through the family’s issues.

Polizzi met privately in his classroom with E.L about 10 to 15 times. Between April 2008 and October 2009, he then began having illegal sexual contact with E.L., who was 17 or 18 at the time and still a student at Cornerstone. N.M. was in Polizzi’s history class in both 11th and 12 h grades, and he was also her mock trial coach. Polizzi began having sexual contact with N.M. between February and March 2010.

Driving separately, Polizzi would meet the girls at a nearby park near the school. In 2010, someone saw Polizzi and N.M. drive back to school in close proximity and reported this observation to the school superintendent. Polizzi admitted to the superintendent that he met with N.M. at the park, and the superintendent informed Polizzi that his contract with Cornerstone wouldn’t be renewed. Polizzi admitted that he did not inform the superintendent about his sexual contact with E.L. or N.M.

Former Teacher Attends Law School

After leaving Cornerstone, Polizzi attended the University of Akron School of Law and began working for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. He didn’t disclose the sexual contact with the girls in his bar application and didn’t disclose he had been terminated by Cornerstone. After passing the bar exam, he worked for the Kisling, Nestico & Redick law firm for three years until he was fired when indicted for the sex crimes.

Polizzi had further contact with E.L and N.M. as they became young adults. In 2012, Polizzi sent N.M. an email that he eventually conceded was obscene.

In July 2017, a Lake County grand jury indicted Polizzi on one count of gross sexual imposition and 24 counts of sexual battery based on his relationship with N.M. In December 2017, the grand jury added 33 counts of gross sexual imposition and 22 counts of sexual battery regarding his contact with E.L. Polizzi agreed to plead guilty to one count each of gross sexual imposition for E.L. and N.M. and three counts of sexual battery for each.

The trial judge sentenced him to a total of 33 years in prison and classified him as a Tier III sex offender. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to 28 years in prison. The Ohio Department of Education revoked his teaching license because of the conviction, and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against him with the Board of Professional Conduct.

After a December 2019 hearing, a board panel found he violated the rules governing the professional conduct of Ohio lawyers by committing illegal acts that reflected adversely on his honesty and trustworthiness and his fitness to practice law. The board adopted the hearing panel’s recommendation to disbar Polizzi.

Lawyer Seeks Lesser Sanction
In his objections to the board’s decision, Polizzi asks the Court to reject the recommendation and impose an indefinite suspension. He notes the board’s report indicates that, in general, the Court has imposed indefinite suspensions in the few cases where a lawyer was convicted of sexual crimes against children.

Polizzi stresses that his conduct occurred prior to becoming a lawyer and that he has never been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct as an attorney. He maintains the board dismissed his expressions of remorse and instead chose to focus on statements he made during his criminal sentencing hearing and his poor choices of words when he attempted to explain his misconduct.

Polizzi asserts the board’s rationale for elevating the sanction from an indefinite suspension to a disbarment is based on the board’s perception that his testimony and behavior do not demonstrate that he acknowledges his wrongdoing. Polizzi maintains he apologized for his conduct throughout his disciplinary hearing and is ashamed and truly sorry for his actions.

Polizzi asks the Court to give him an opportunity to grow and change and to have the ability to practice law after he is released from prison. He notes that his only chance to apply for an earlier reinstatement date requires the approval of the trial judge, which Polizzi is certain will not happen. He argues that his conduct over the next 30 years should determine whether he can meet the standards to practice law in Ohio, and that he be allowed to seek reinstatement at that time.

Disbarment Appropriate, Disciplinary Counsel Argues
The disciplinary counsel agrees there is little precedent in Ohio where a lawyer is sanctioned for sexual crimes against children, but notes that in other states the lawyers have been disbarred. The disciplinary counsel notes that Polizzi points to Ohio cases where lawyers were indefinitely suspended for having “sexual communications” with minors. Polizzi deserves a more severe sanction for having sexual contact, the office asserts.

The disciplinary counsel explains the rule violations relate totally to the convictions for the crimes, and that Polizzi isn’t being punished solely for his behaviors regarding his lack of remorse and failure to be candid about his acts. The disciplinary counsel argues that Polizzi has had multiple opportunities to admit wrongdoing, “but when faced with crossroads, he consciously chose the wrong path.” The office notes Polizzi failed to tell the school about his misconduct, didn’t disclose it in his bar exam application, and initially misled a court-appointed psychologist.

The disciplinary counsel asserts that Polizzi took advantage of vulnerable teenage girls, and his conduct with E.L. was “especially egregious” because her mother trusted Polizzi to counsel her daughter while her parents were going through a divorce. The office notes both victims made emotional, impactful statements at Polizzi’s criminal sentencing regarding the harm he inflicted on them.

(Mike Frisch)

Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink


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