Portion of Video
So, we all get angry from time to time. But if you are a lawyer, your expression can lead to suspension of your law license. On September 26, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Columbus attorney John Okuley’s license to practice law for one year with six months stayed.
In April 2015, Mr. Okuley became incensed when cyclist Eric Hansen passed his car on the right-hand side of the vehicle. According to Mr. Okuley, he believed Mr. Hansen hit his car. According to eyewitness John Bahling, Okuley pulled in front of Hansen and slammed on the brakes. The cyclist then really did hit his car. Hansen fell off the bicycle, which was badly damaged. Being a physician, Bahling stopped to make sure Hansen was not hurt. Bahling started videotaping the incident and Okuley knocked the phone out of Bahling’s hand, which led to an altercation between the two. A portion of the video is linked above. Another witness, Walker, described the incident as beginning with intense verbal conflict and ending in a wrestling match.
Okuley claimed he was trying to preserve Bahling’s phone for evidence. Walker and Bahling both testified that Bahling’s phone fell to the ground and Okuley stomped on it. A responding police officer told Okuley that he could not take another person’s possessions, but Okuley disagreed saying he was allowed to collect evidence.
Okuley was charged with criminal damaging, a second-degree misdemeanor, for damaging Bahling’s phone. Okuley pleaded not guilty but then left the courthouse on the day of trial without informing the prosecutor or the court. He was later arrested on a bench warrant. Okuley was later found guilty and sentenced to a suspended 90-day jail term and ordered to pay restitution to Bahling.
The Supreme Court determined that Okuley violated the attorney ethics rules when he destroyed Bahling’s phone containing potential evidence, lied to the police and left the court prior to trial without informing anyone.
Although the incident did not involve any clients, the Court determined that Okuley, nevertheless, harmed the public by creating a danger on the roadway, acting violently toward Bahling, and lying to the police, the disciplinary investigators and the courts in civil suits brought against him due to the incident. The Supreme Court determined that Okuley did not take responsibility for his misconduct, but he suffered consequences outside the disciplinary system when he was convicted of a crime, was fined, paid court costs, paid restitution and paid a civil suit settlement.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has disciplined an attorney for a road rage incident. In 2000, Delaware County Municipal Judge Michael Hoague received a stayed suspended for a similar incident. Witnessing an auto being driven recklessly, Judge Hoague called the Delaware Police and the Ohio State Highway Patrol reporting the make and model of the car and the license number. He later did his own investigation to determine the owner of the car. He then wrote her a letter on court stationery informing her that if she wished to avoid possible further action, she must contact the court within a certain period of time.
When the owner and the driver of the vehicle both appeared before him, Judge Hoague met them in the courtroom where they were seated at the defense table and he took the bench. Judge Hoague threatened criminal prosecution and indicated he would have a talk with the Sheriff’s Department so they had a fuller picture of what he witnessed. He later tried to contact the couple’s employers.
Judge Hoague was convicted of coercion, a second-degree misdemeanor, regarding the incident. He later wrote a public letter of apology in the Delaware Gazette. The Supreme Court determined that Judge Hoague violated Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct by failing to act in a manner that promoted confidence in the judiciary. It ordered a six-month stayed suspension of Judge Hoague’s law license.
The bottom line is that no matter how incensed one becomes at another’s conduct, misuse of legal authority can lead to real harm to the lawyer — or judge. As attorneys and judges, our conduct is held to a higher standard. No doubt because people believe us when we say we can get them in trouble. Everyone gets angry. Bullying others, however, can have serious consequences for legal professionals.