In Three Cases, Supreme Court Finds that Non-Lawyers Practiced Law
In three separate cases announced today, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a real-estate agent, a man who represented a debt-consolidation company, and another man who owned a divorce-assistance company, none of whom are attorneys, all engaged in the practice of law without having been admitted to the bar.
Company prepares faulty divorce petition
Norm Hernick owns companies called “Law Online Inc.” and “A Divorce Fast.” In 2007, Andrea Colburn contacted A Divorce Fast when she was seeking a divorce from her husband, Derik Derousse.
She was advised by the company that she did not need legal advice or representation and, after paying $539, A Divorce Fast prepared a divorce complaint on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Colburn told the company she wanted child custody and support, but the complaint did not include her request. When she tried to file the complaint in court, court personnel told her it was unacceptable and they helped her with the divorce paperwork. Ultimately, the divorce was granted on grounds of incompatibility and living separate and apart for more than one year, contrary to what A Divorce Fast had determined.
In today’s unanimous per curiam (not authored by a specific justice) decision, the court adopted the recommendation of the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law to approve a consent decree. In the decree, which is a judgment that all the parties agree to, Hernick admits he engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) when his company prepared Colburn’s complaint.
The decree requires that Hernick and any company he owns cannot engage in UPL, he must pay a $1,000 fine, and he must reimburse Colburn her $539.
Non-lawyer drafts legal documents for homeowners, represents his real-estate company in court
In a second case, the Supreme Court unanimously held that former Mount Vernon area resident Paul-Eugene Miller had provided legal services, filed paperwork in county recorder offices, and represented his company in court, despite not being an attorney, thus engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Miller was a managing partner in Diversified Benefits Group Ltd., a company in the business of purchasing homes. Miller, as an agent for the company, would enter into agreements with homeowners to sell their houses to Diversified, and prepare contracts, deeds, trust agreements, affidavits, powers of attorney, and promissory notes.
In 2007, in Howard, Ohio, Craig and Heidi Stevens hired Miller to prepare paperwork to sell their home to him. They paid him $3,000, and he had the couple sign a limited power of attorney, a trust agreement, a “land trust beneficial interest assignment,” and other documents. Miller agreed to take care of all of the property’s expenses once the papers had been signed.
Subsequently, the couple discovered that neither the company nor Miller were making the mortgage payments on the house. Because the couple could not reach Miller, they lost their house to foreclosure.
At least five other homeowners reported similar circumstances involving Miller.
In today’s per curiam decision, the court adopted the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law’s report, which found that Miller had engaged in UPL seven times, six times in his dealings with homeowners and once by representing Diversified in court.
The court levied a penalty totaling $7,000 and ordered Miller to stop the unauthorized practice of law.
Company barred from representing debtors in collection matters
In 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court approved a consent decree stating that Stuart Jansen and his company, American Mediation & Alternative Resolutions, had represented several clients who were in debt in their settlements with creditors, constituting UPL.
That decree required American Mediation to stop sending correspondence to creditors that disputed the debts of their clients, and to stop representing debtors in the resolution of their debts with creditors.
In today’s unanimous decision, the court adopted the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law’s report, which determined that Jansen and American Mediation had violated the 2010 consent decree by continuing to represent debtors in their settlements with creditors.
After the 2010 consent decree went into effect, American Mediation sent about 35,000 solicitation letters to potential clients and sent close to 459 proposed settlement letters to creditors on behalf of their clients, who paid between $250 and $295 per case.
A new consent decree, approved by the court today, noted that even though the company altered its letters to say that they were not attorneys, the business was not a mediation service, as they claimed.
“The one-sided nature of [their mediation] agreement, which also requires the debtor to pay respondents’ fees in full, reveals that while respondent’s forms may have changed, their underlying business practices – which constitute the unauthorized practice of law – have not,” the court’s per curiam opinion stated.
The court ordered Jansen and American Mediation to permanently stop engaging in “any arbitration, mediation, or alternative dispute resolution of any kind for profit.” It also stated that a minimum penalty of $50,000 will be imposed if either Jansen or American Mediation is found to engage in UPL again.
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