Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Sanction Issue Before Ohio Supreme Court

An oral argument scheduled today before the Ohio Supreme Court

Medina County Bar Association v. Russell A. Buzzelli, Case No. 2021-1233
Medina County

The Board of Professional Conduct recommends a two-year suspension for Wadsworth attorney Russell Buzzelli, concluding that he violated 18 attorney ethics rules.

Buzzelli objects only to the proposed sanction. He asks the Ohio Supreme Court to stay one year of the suspension. The Medina County Bar Association, which submitted the disciplinary complaint against Buzzelli, disagrees. The “extreme nature” of the attorney’s misconduct supports a suspension with no stay to protect the public, the association’s brief maintains.

Because Buzzelli objected to the board’s recommendation, the Supreme Court must hear oral argument in the case.

Client Helps Attorney with Office Work
Buzzelli states that Mary Beth Foster approached him in summer 2017 to represent her in a divorce. Foster began doing work at Buzzelli’s law office, but not as a paid employee, starting in fall 2017 until the late summer of 2018. During part of this time, Buzzelli was estranged from his wife and lived with Foster.

Foster answered the telephone, had an office key, and was in the office with clients. She had access to Buzzelli’s computer, client files, and bank accounts. Buzzelli provided no training or supervision to Foster.

Attorney Threatens Client, Commits Other Misconduct
In September 2018, Foster recorded part of a conversation she and Buzzelli had in his office. The attorney touched Foster against her will – which he referred to in the recording – and threatened to kill her. Buzzelli stated that he wanted to intimidate Foster because she had threatened to murder his wife. However, no evidence to support Buzzelli’s claim was admitted at his disciplinary hearing.

Buzzelli also acted as his wife’s attorney in filing a request for a civil stalking protection order against Foster. At the final hearing, Buzzelli cross-examined Foster using information he gathered while representing her in her cases.

Among his ethical violations, the professional conduct board found Buzzelli failed to take measures to ensure that Foster’s conduct in his law office abided by ethical rules; committed an illegal act – menacing – by threatening Foster; and used information obtained while representing Foster against her in a later legal matter.

The board also determined that Buzzelli neglected the case of a client who paid a $15,000 retainer to him to handle a divorce and then overcharged her, and that he didn’t act diligently while representing a client in the appeal of a conviction.

Professional Conduct Board Rejects Any Stay of Suspension
The board’s three-member panel that conducted the disciplinary hearing suggested a two-year suspension with six months stayed. However, the full board voted to recommend a two-year suspension with no stay, citing Buzzelli’s violence toward Foster and misrepresentations he made in a federal court filing for Foster.

The board recommends that the attorney pay restitution of $7,869 in the overcharging case within 60 days of the final order, pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings, and complete six hours of legal education on sexual harassment and employee management.

Attorney Advocates for Partial Stay
Buzzelli states in his objections that he acknowledges his ethical misconduct and accepts the proposed conditions of a suspension. Noting his wife’s ongoing medical conditions, he maintains he and his wife are dependent on his ability to earn an income. He asks the Court to stay one year of his suspension, pointing to other similar disciplinary cases with lesser sanctions and stating he has had no other disciplinary actions in 34 years of practicing law.

Bar Association Argues Full Suspension Necessary
The bar association responds in its brief that Buzzelli “has not learned that his actions undermined his clients and the public.” It supports the board’s proposed sanction and conditions.

 Kathleen Maloney


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