Tuesday, February 7, 2023

A Dispute Over Sanction

A preview of an oral argument today before the Ohio Supreme Court

Disciplinary Counsel v. Griff M. Nowicki, Case No. 2022-1253
Montgomery County

A Montgomery County attorney is facing discipline for a romantic relationship he began with an employee at his law firm while representing the employee in a lawsuit.

Griff Nowicki and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigated the complaint, agreed to a one-year suspension, fully stayed. The Board of Professional Conduct, however, recommends a one-year suspension with six months stayed in its report to the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Nowicki objects to the board’s recommended sanction. Because of his objection, the Supreme Court will hold an oral argument in the case.

Attorney Assists Employee and Her Husband With Lawsuit
Sondra Clark was hired as an assistant at Nowicki’s law firm in 2018. In August of that year, Nowicki agreed to represent Clark, her husband, and her son in lawsuit. The attorney’s representation was pro bono. He filed an answer in the civil case and stated that he did no other work in the matter.

In December 2018, Clark’s husband left the home where he and Clark lived, and no longer saw their children. The following April, Nowicki and Clark began a sexual relationship. Clark’s husband learned they were dating. Charges were later filed against Clark’s husband for telephone harassment and violating a protection order that Clark obtained against him.

Because Nowicki and Clark were victims in the harassment cases, Nowicki withdrew in August 2019 from representing Clark’s husband in the civil case. He continued to represent Clark and her son in the matter. Clark filed for divorce, with Nowicki as her lawyer. The civil case was dismissed later in August.

Clark’s husband pled guilty to three misdemeanors, and their divorce was finalized in October 2019. Clark and Nowicki married in 2020.

Professional Conduct Board Increases Recommended Suspension
The board panel that reviewed the misconduct allegations found that Nowicki violated rules against engaging in sexual activity with a client and against representing a client when there are certain conflicts of interest.

Looking at prior disciplinary decisions, the panel concluded that Nowicki should receive a one-year suspension with six months stayed and that he complete three hours of extra continuing education on professional conduct. The board adopted the findings and recommended sanction.

Attorney Argues Facts Support Stay of Suspension
Nowicki doesn’t take issue with the determination that his actions were professional misconduct. He sees differences, though, between his case and the cases cited by the board to support an actual six-month suspension. He maintains that he wasn’t paid to represent the Clarks in the civil suit, his romantic relationship with Clark began four months after she separated from her husband in December 2018, and he had no dishonest motive in starting the relationship. He also submitted certificates to the Court showing he has already completed the additional coursework.

Disciplinary Counsel Opposes Harsher Sanction
The disciplinary counsel maintains that the jointly recommended one-year stayed suspension protects the public and is supported by prior disciplinary decisions. Nowicki’s misconduct was serious, but there was no actual harm to Clark or her husband as clients, the disciplinary counsel states. The office points out that the civil case was dismissed, which benefited Clark and her husband, and Nowicki didn’t neglect their cases. Also, Clark’s husband had left Clark before the attorney and she began a romantic relationship, the office notes.

The disciplinary counsel argues that when an attorney commits misconduct by starting a sexual relationship with a client, that action isn’t inherently dishonest or selfish. Context matters, the disciplinary counsel maintains. Even if the Court determines that Nowicki’s motives were selfish, that shouldn’t push the discipline in this case to an actual suspension, given the facts, the disciplinary counsel concludes.

 Kathleen Maloney


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