Wednesday, September 8, 2021
An argument scheduled for today before the Ohio Supreme Court
Disciplinary Counsel v. Sean R. Porter, Case No. 2021-0754
The Board of Professional Conduct recommends that a Chagrin Falls attorney be suspended for two years with one year stayed.
The board determined Sean Porter had sex with two clients while handling their divorce, custody, and related matters, and he signed and falsely notarized one client’s name on a document. Porter also denied his sexual relationship with the other client in materials submitted during the disciplinary investigation.
Attorney and Client Start Intimate Relationship
Beginning in December 2018, Porter represented a woman identified as M.H. in her divorce. The divorce was finalized in May 2019, but Porter continued representing M.H. throughout the year on related matters.
During the time of Porter’s representation, M.H. was in recovery for alcoholism. Her children lived in Lakewood with their father, while she lived and worked at a California rehabilitation facility related to her addiction.
Porter and M.H. began sending inappropriate and sexually suggestive text messages to each other in July 2019. In a July court filing, Porter included an affidavit from M.H. Porter had signed M.H.’s signature for her and then notarized it.
After M.H. flew to Ohio for two court hearings, she and Porter had sex. Porter broke up with her in September 2019. On Oct. 15, M.H. informed the law firm where Porter worked about his conduct. When confronted, Porter initially denied M.H.’s allegations but admitted to them later that day. Among the steps the firm required of Porter, he was told that if he didn’t report his misconduct to disciplinary authorities within a week the firm would report him.
Another Client Invites Attorney to Dinner
Porter was hired in the summer of 2019 by a woman identified as A.H. to represent her in a divorce and on a domestic violence charge. After positive news in her criminal case, A.H. invited Porter, who was still handling her other legal matters, to dinner. He went to dinner and, afterward, they had sex. Porter and A.H. exchanged text messages for several weeks.
They texted on the evening of Oct. 15, the day that the law firm confronted Porter about his improper relationship with M.H. The attorney failed to inform the law firm about his relationship with A.H. at that time. When he reported his involvement with M.H. to the disciplinary authorities that week, he didn’t mention his ongoing intimate relationship with A.H.
The law firm fired Porter in December 2019. He and A.H. continued their relationship until March 2020 when Porter broke it off. In early April, A.H. filed a grievance against the attorney. In his response to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, Porter falsely and repeatedly claimed that his relationship with A.H. didn’t begin until after the firm removed him from her case in November 2019. He also attacked her character and motives.
Attorney Violated Ethical Rules, Board Determines
A three-member panel of the professional conduct board reviewed Porter’s case, held a hearing, and made recommendations for disciplinary action. The board agreed with the panel’s conclusion that Porter violated three rules governing attorney conduct – engaging in sexual activity with a client, making a false statement by signing M.H.’s name and notarizing it, and lying in his written response during the disciplinary investigation.
When considering a disciplinary sanction, the board considers aggravating circumstances that could increase the penalty and mitigating factors that could lead to a lesser sanction. Among the aggravating circumstances found in Porter’s case are a dishonest and selfish motive, the vulnerability of his clients, making false statements, and a refusal to acknowledge that his conduct was wrong. The absence of a prior disciplinary record and a good faith effort to reimburse the clients through the law firm were identified as mitigating.
The board recommends a two-year suspension with one year stayed on conditions. If approved by the Court, Porter must contact the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) for an evaluation within 60 days of the final order in this case, must not have any direct client contact or handle client funds during his suspension, and must refrain from further misconduct.
As conditions for reinstatement to practicing law, the board suggests that the attorney must give proof that he has complied with OLAP’s assessment, complete six hours of continuing legal education regarding ethical boundaries for lawyers, and work with a monitoring attorney for two years. The monitoring attorney will pre-approve any professional interactions with potential female clients and review all of Porter’s interactions with those clients.
Lesser Timeout Is Warranted, Attorney Maintains
Porter disagrees with the board’s recommended sanction. He argues for a six-month, rather than a one-year, actual suspension from practicing law.
He maintains in his objections that the women initiated the personal and consensual relationships. He emphasizes that his personal relationships with M.H. and A.H. weren’t motivated by financial gain, and he didn’t offer a discount on legal services in exchange for sexual favors.
Porter also notes that after A.H. filed a complaint, he reached out to OLAP for help. He currently is receiving treatment from a therapist. However, his brief argues, he was unable to obtain a sustained period of mental-health treatment during the pandemic. He believes that his ongoing treatment should have been considered as a mitigating factor and that he is being punished for being unable to obtain mental-health treatment sooner during a pandemic.
Porter adds that he had a heavy workload at the earlier firm and received little, if any, guidance from the attorneys there. After he was fired, he joined his father’s law firm, where he is excelling under his father’s mentorship and oversight, he notes.
Proposed Sanction in Line with Disciplinary Precedent, Disciplinary Counsel States
The disciplinary counsel notes that Porter knew of the allegation against him in October 2019 and the disciplinary complaint was filed in October 2020. Yet he waited until April 2021, a few weeks before his disciplinary hearing, to seek treatment, the disciplinary counsel’s brief explains. Porter didn’t raise the issue that he couldn’t find mental-health counseling during the COVID-19 crisis, nor did he present any evidence to support that claim, the brief states.
The disciplinary counsel’s brief also notes that during the disciplinary process Porter acknowledged some of his wrongdoing, then shifted the blame to his clients by stating they initiated the personal relationships and he has trouble saying “no” to people. He continues in his objections in this case to not appreciate the seriousness of his actions, the brief maintains.
The disciplinary counsel adds that Porter also implies a lack of supervision at his earlier firm was a cause of his misconduct even though his misconduct continued after he joined his father’s firm. The disciplinary counsel states that, while at his new firm, besides continuing his personal relationship with A.H., he filed a response during the disciplinary investigation that was filled with lies about the timing of the relationship with A.H., “victim-blaming,” and “character assassination.”
Citing a Court ruling in an earlier disciplinary case, the disciplinary counsel contends that an abuse of the attorney-client relationship not only harms the client’s dignity, but also “impugns the legal system as a whole.”
– Kathleen Maloney