Court Rules That Collections Company and Non-Lawyer Civil Rights Advocate Practiced Law
In separate cases, the Ohio Supreme Court today ordered a collections business near Cleveland and a Minnesota civil rights advocate involved in two Ohio domestic relations cases to stop engaging in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL).
Collections company commits 113 offenses, fined $282,500
Derek Wooten is a co-owner of Aaron, Derek, Carter & Steen (ADCS), a collections agency in Beachwood. Before founding this company, Wooten, who is not an attorney, worked for another business collecting debt for medical and payday-loan companies. He filed collection actions on behalf of those companies in municipal and common pleas courts, and personally signed the complaints in those courts. In August 2008, the Akron Bar Association notified Wooten that he was practicing law without a license and instructed him to stop negotiating claims for other individuals or corporations.
The Cleveland Bar Association submitted its complaint against Wooten and ADCS in 2012. The bar association included more than 100 pleadings that ADCS and Wooten had filed, mostly for check-cashing or payday-loan companies, in municipal and small claims courts in Rocky River, Bedford, Willoughby, Euclid, and Akron.
In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court noted that Wooten and ADCS offered minimal cooperation in the investigation and pointed to the Akron Bar Association’s earlier order. The court determined that Wooten and ADCS committed 113 offenses, and they harmed the defendants in the lawsuits they filed.
The court, in a per curiam opinion, issued a civil penalty against Wooten and ADCS of $2,500 per offense, totaling $282,500. Wooten and ADCS are prohibited from signing pleadings, appearing in court proceedings, and engaging in mediation on behalf of any other party, and they must inform their clients that they are not authorized to file complaints or represent their clients in any court of law.
The court’s majority was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French. Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and William M. O’Neill would instead impose a $25,000 civil penalty against Wooten and ADCS.
Out-of-state “advocate” acted as a lawyer in two Ohio divorce-related matters
In a second case involving a non-lawyer, the Supreme Court forbid Kimberley Bukstein of Minnesota from engaging in any further unauthorized practice of law and imposed a civil penalty of $10,000 for her actions while working with two Ohio women.
Bukstein filed an affidavit in a Clark County divorce case stating that she was a neutral third party, helping Melinda Polen to access justice and showing how Polen’s rights had been denied. Bukstein had described herself as a national “civil rights advocate” who “specialized in ethics issues arising in litigation and government agencies.”
The Supreme Court’s Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law found that Bukstein acted as a lawyer by providing legal advice, by drafting a motion for Polen to sign indicating that she was representing herself, by making legal arguments in communications on Polen’s behalf, and by sitting in court at the table for attorneys.
Among Bukstein’s actions, she filed a grievance with the Ohio Board of Nursing against the current wife of Polen’s ex-husband. Bukstein also filed complaints with the Ohio State Bar Association against the attorney ex-husband, the judge in the divorce hearing, Polen’s original attorney, and the lawyer representing Polen’s ex-husband.
Bukstein also assisted Christine Tibbitts with visitation and financial issues after Tibbitts’s Delaware County divorce was finalized. Tibbitts’s ex-husband testified that Bukstein emailed, mailed, and called him, and he believed she was an attorney attempting to change their parenting and divorce agreement.
In a unanimous per curiam decision, the court agreed that Bukstein made legal arguments for others, demanded discovery, and threatened to file disciplinary complaints or lawsuits to coerce others to cooperate in legal matters. The court barred Bukstein from giving legal advice, preparing or helping to prepare legal documents for other people, sending correspondence for others that threaten to file disciplinary or legal actions, among other prohibitions.
The board recommended a civil penalty of $20,000. Because the court did not have adequate evidence to support the board’s finding that Bukstein’s unauthorized practice of law was persistent, systematic, and continuing and because her conduct was not among the most egregious UPL incidents, the court lowered the penalty to $5,000 per case, for a total of $10,000.
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