Monday, June 14, 2021

A Holiday Party

Set for oral argument Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court

Columbus Bar Association v. Natalie J. Bahan, Case No. 2021-0224
Logan County

A Logan County lawyer is challenging her second sanction in as many years regarding an ongoing dispute with a retired judge and allegations of improper conduct fueled by alcohol consumption.

The Board of Professional Conduct has recommended that Bellefontaine attorney Natalie Bahan receive a six-month, fully stayed suspension for failing to maintain a respectful attitude toward the courts and engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on her fitness to practice law. The charges include her “loud, profane, and drunken conduct and remarks directed at” now-retired Judge William Goslee during a 2018 Logan County Bar Association holiday party at a local restaurant.

Bahan denies the allegation that she violated the ethics rules governing Ohio attorneys, and maintains her soft-spoken expletives about Goslee are protected by her constitutional freedom of speech rights and that Goslee wasn’t offended by her words because he continued to speak while accepting a “mock” award from the local bar.

The Supreme Court in 2020 publicly reprimanded Bahan for ethical rule violations associated with her attempts to be hired by a woman arrested in a high-profile murder case. Goslee, who retired from the Logan County Common Pleas Court in 2019, was involved in filing the grievance against Bahan that led to the sanction. (See Logan County Lawyer Reprimanded for Seeking to Represent Jailed Woman.) The Columbus Bar Association, which initiated both the prior and current disciplinary complaints, maintains that the board’s findings support a minimum a six-month stayed suspension.

The Supreme Court is obligated to hear objections to board recommendations in attorney discipline cases. Because of the COVID-19 health crisis, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case by videoconference, which will be livestreamed.

Party Rant Leads to Ethics Charge
In March 2017, Rosalie Kennedy was arrested and jailed for the murder of her husband. Bahan did not know Kennedy but became interested in the case after learning of the arrest. Bahan went to the local jail to visit Kennedy by telling others she intended to advise Kennedy of her rights, but actually intended to ask the woman to allow her to be part of her defense team. Ethics rules ban lawyers from making in-person contact to solicit employment when the lawyer is significantly motivated by financial gain.

A grievance was filed against Bahan, and a professional conduct board hearing on the matter was approaching when Bahan attended the December 2018 Logan County Bar Association holiday party. Goslee was to receive a mock award from the bar association. During the presentation, Bahan interrupted by calling Goslee several profane names. Party attendees indicated Bahan had consumed alcohol and was intoxicated.

While Bahan claims she said the words quietly, Miranda Warren, president of the county bar association, apologized to the caterer and the restaurant owner on behalf of the bar association because of Bahan’s behavior.

Ethics Rules Violated, Board Concludes
The board concluded Bahan didn’t maintain a respectful attitude toward the courts, a violation of the ethics rules. Bahan she didn’t violate the rule by aiming her remarks at Goslee during the holiday party. She notes in cases where the Supreme Court found violations of the rule, the unprofessional comments made by lawyers regarding judges or other officials happened in court or in the midst of a legal proceeding. She argues that Goslee is not a “court” and that her actions didn’t violate the rule and are also opinions protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Columbus Bar Association counters the rule covers remarks made about judges outside of legal proceedings and Bahan never denied making the comments, but only argues she was justified in making them because she thought the bar association was rewarding and encouraging improper judicial behavior. The association also notes the Ohio Supreme Court in past decisions has ruled that constitutional free speech rights can’t shield a lawyer from discipline related to proven unethical conduct.

Unprofessional Behavior Involving Alcohol Use Alleged
The bar association charged Bahan with engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on her fitness to practice law based on the “cumulative” effect of seven alcohol-related incidents occurring between 2010 and 2019. Two of the incidents involved calling the Logan County Sheriff’s Office while allegedly intoxicated.

In one instance, Bahan and her husband had an argument at a 2019 charity benefit. When she couldn’t locate her husband, she assumed he left her. She called the sheriff’s office to report her car was stolen. Bahan notes that she discovered her husband was still at the party and called the sheriff’s department back 10 minutes later to tell them to disregard the call. Nonetheless, sheriff’s deputies visited her home two hours later to check on her well-being. The responding deputy reported that Bahan appeared intoxicated and testified at board proceedings that it wasn’t proper to report a vehicle as stolen when taken by a spouse.

The board also noted a 2017 incident when Bahan contacted the sheriff to report that her teenage son stole her iPad. The responding officers reported the call was mostly to resolve an argument with her husband and reported that she appeared intoxicated and was slurring her speech.

The board concluded the two incidents involving law enforcement constituted “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.” The board report cites five other incidents related to alcohol use  presented by the bar association, but only considered three of the incidents to cumulatively lead to conduct adversely effecting her fitness to practice law.

No Proof Alcohol Misuse Led to Ethics Violations, Lawyer Argues
Bahan maintains the board hasn’t proven any alcohol-related misconduct. The board report found that she was twice evaluated by the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP), which didn’t result in determinations that Bahan had an alcohol problem or recommend that she enter into a contract with OLAP for treatment She suggests the board’s charges be dismissed.

The bar association disputes the board’s finding about OLAP’s alcohol assessments, arguing that the proceedings indicated the OLAP determinations were based on Bahan’s self-reports of the interactions and that full OLAP evaluations never took place. The bar association urges the Court to review the board proceedings and conclude that Bahan should at least receive a stayed suspension, if not a more severe sanction.

 Dan Trevas

(Mike Frisch)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2021/06/a-holiday-party-.html

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