Attorney Sanctioned For Practicing During Interim Suspension

On February 23, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Rebecca Jo Austin of Lakewood for failing to answer a Complaint that the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association filed against her with the Board of Professional Conduct.  The suspension was an interim default suspension.  This is an immediate suspension from the practice of law for failing to respond to the formal complaint.  When this occurs, an attorney is not permitted to practice law.

On May 4, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio found Ms. Austin to be in contempt for failing to comply with its default suspension Order.  On August 22, 2018, Ms. Austin moved for leave to file an answer, which the Supreme Court of Ohio granted.  It then remanded the matter to the Board of Professional Conduct.

On remand, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association amended its complaint to add practicing while under suspension.  After hearing, the Board recommended that Ms. Austin be indefinitely suspended with credit for time served.  The Supreme Court of Ohio ordered an indefinite suspension but declined to give Ms. Austin credit for time served.  An indefinite suspension is a suspension for a minimum of two (2) years.  Prior to being reinstated, however, the attorney must demonstrate the requisite character and fitness that the attorney was required to show when she originally applied for a license to practice law.

Ms. Austin was disciplined for neglecting two matters, failing to return a retainer upon being discharged, failing to appear at court hearings, for practicing law while under suspension, and for misrepresenting to clients and courts about her suspension.

Interestingly, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association opposed Ms. Austin’s disbarment, indicating that it believed that Ms. Austin was likely to establish in the future her ability to be readmitted to the practice of law.

Although it seems axiomatic, the importance of responding to disciplinary investigations and prosecutions is most important. The matter will not go away.  It will just compound the ethics charges and the sanction.


Judges Driving Under The Influence

It has, yet again, been a busy week for judicial disciplinary charges this week.

Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Becky Doherty may face further disciplinary action as a result of an OVI case brought against her.  On February 2019, Judge Doherty was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol after she drove a vehicle belonging to an Akron woman off a snowy on-ramp to Interstate 76 eastbound at Route 43 in Brimfield and crashed into a ditch at about 9:15 p.m.  She later pled guilty to the charge, a first-degree misdemeanor.

As a result, on May 20, 2019, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed disciplinary charges against Judge Doherty with the Board of Professional Conduct requesting sanctions against her for violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.  She was charged with failure to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary and failure to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  The formal hearing on the matter will occur on October 22, 2019.

Chief Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Joe Caligiuri stated that the sanction on this first offense will likely be a stayed suspension or a public reprimand.

In the meantime, the office of Disciplinary Counsel also filed disciplinary charges against Franklin County Domestic Relations Court Judge Monica Hawkins for her conviction for driving while under the influence of alcohol.  Hawkins was arrested in Pickerington on January 31, 2019, with a blood-alcohol level of .199%, nearly twice the legal limit.  Judge Hawkins informed the arresting officer that she was a judge and said she had not been drinking.  She was later convicted of the charge.  The Office of Disciplinary Counsel charged her with failing to comply with the law and failing to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary, violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.  The charges could result in the suspension of her license to practice law.  A suspension carries a heavy penalty as it means that she would also be suspended from the bench as a requirement for holding judicial office is to be able to practice law in Ohio.


Judicial Felon Suspended

On July 1, 2019, the Supreme Court of Ohio suspended the law license of former Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge Diane Vettori-Caraballo, after a federal judge sentenced her to 30 months in prison.  The prison sentence followed Ms. Vettori-Caraballo’s conviction for stealing from the estate of a deceased client. Ms. Vettori-Caraballo was convicted of mail fraud, structuring bank deposits and making false statements to law enforcement.  The Supreme Court of Ohio suspended her license for an interim period due to her felony conviction pending disciplinary proceedings.

Ms. Vettori-Caraballo was ordered to pay $328,000 in restitution, an amount both her counsel and the prosecutors agreed upon.  The theft occurred from the estate of Ms. Vettori-Caraballo’s former client, Dolores Falgiani.  Ms. Vettori-Caraballo absconded with the money when she found it in cash hidden in Ms. Falgiani’s home after her death in 2016.  Since Ms. Vettori-Caraballo has been a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge since her election in 2002, her conduct occurred while she was a sitting judge.

The matter was referred to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for further investigation says The Vindicator, the Youngstown paper.




Lost Settlement Check = Suspension

On June 5, 2019, the Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Lorain County Attorney Jeffrey H. Weir, II for losing a client’s settlement check.  Weir received a one-year suspension with 6 months stayed.

The lost check, however, was not the only reason for the suspension.  Both the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Lorain County Bar Association filed complaints against Weir based on separate grievances filed with those offices.  The Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Weir on an interim basis when he failed to respond to a third disciplinary complaint not involving either of those matters.

Weir accepted representation of his client to terminate a land sale contract.  The sellers sent Weir a check as a settlement offer.  Because both he and the client believed she was entitled to more funds than the value of the check, they agreed not to cash it.  Later, the client agreed to accept the check as settlement.  Because it was stale, Weir requested a replacement check from the sellers, which he received August 2016.  He then lost the check and did not respond to his client’s inquiries about it in September and October 2016.  In November 2016, he informed his client he had misplaced the check and would request a third check but then stopped all communication with his client.

Weir did not respond to the grievance the client filed against him with the Lorain County Bar Association but did appear at a grievance committee meeting.  He found the lost check in December 2017 and gave it to his client.  When she tried to cash it, the bank dishonored it.  The seller’s attorney said the sellers would not write a third check for the settlement.  The Supreme Court of Ohio agreed with the Board that Weir’s misconduct included losing his client’s settlement check, failing to communicate with her over an extended period of time and then failing to make her whole.  Lorain Cty. Bar Assn. v. Weir, 2019-Ohio-2151, ¶ 16).

The Disciplinary Counsel action involved Weir substituting as counsel for his clients in a lawsuit.  When the court entered judgment against his clients, Weir sued their former counsel for malpractice.  The court dismissed the action as time-barred.  Weir appealed.  The appellee filed a motion to dismiss because the appeal was time-barred.  Weir failed to respond to the motion and the appellate court dismissed the appeal.  The Supreme Court determined that he failed to give competent and diligent representation to his clients. Id. ¶ 19.

As a result of this misconduct, Weir was actually suspended from the practice of law.