Non-Lawyer Advocate Gave Legal Advice to Criminal Defendants
A Lorain County non-lawyer and his corporation engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by providing legal advice to individuals facing criminal charges, according to an Ohio Supreme Court decision today.
The court directed King Ayettey Zubaidah and STAND, Inc., to stop practicing law and ordered them to pay a civil penalty of $20,000 for their involvement in four legal matters.
Zubaidah formed STAND (Striving Towards a New Day!) in 2008 after his experience with the justice system in the 1980s when he was convicted on a drug charge and sentenced to five years probation. STAND’s mission was “to help change the unfair and partial treatment against minorities in the judicial system.”
In each of the four cases brought before the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL), the defendant or a parent of the defendant asked for Zubaidah’s guidance during the criminal case and signed an agreement with STAND, which stated that the organization would assist them. No payment was required. Family members testified that Zubaidah did not claim to be an attorney and they knew he was not one.
In one matter, Isaiah Harris faced several charges in three different cases in 2008 involving the same victim. The court appointed a lawyer to represent him. Harris also signed an agreement with STAND.
The three cases were combined, and before Harris’ trial Zubaidah sent a letter to the judge indicating he had in-depth knowledge about the facts in the case and defending Harris’ actions.
In the midst of trial, Harris’ lawyer negotiated a plea deal for a four-year prison term. Zubaidah attended the trial, but his involvement was disputed. Harris’ lawyer claimed that Zubaidah advised Harris not to accept the deal. Harris rejected the offer and was later convicted and sentenced to 23 years, 6 months in prison.
In the other cases, Zubaidah sent letters to the judges asking for lower bonds, citing cases, and making legal arguments, though indicating that he was not an attorney.
In today’s per curiam opinion, the court noted that an individual who negotiates legal claims for another person and provides legal advice – even without charge and even when stating that he is not an attorney – is practicing law.
While a non-attorney who sends a character-reference letter for someone to a judge is not engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, the court stated that when a letter shifts to advocating specific legal positions for that person, the unauthorized practice of law occurs.
“[D]espite the laudable desire to seek reform in the criminal system, such a desire cannot be realized by legally advising and advocating on behalf of a criminal defendant without violating our prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law,” the opinion stated.
“Zubaidah’s actions extended beyond the permissible conduct of endorsing a person’s character, advocating a social issue generally, advancing personal interests, or providing nonlegal advice to a family member. Despite Zubaidah’s good intentions and intermittent disclaimers, his conduct shows a pattern of advocating legal positions on behalf of defendants and providing legal advice to those defendants, leading to serious consequences for the STAND clients who trusted him.”
The court pointed out that Zubaidah held himself out as “an advocate with legal expertise,” his agreements implied that he had specialized knowledge of the legal system, and his letters to judges “cited case law, raised legal issues, and asked for legal results.”
Adopting the UPL board’s recommendation, the court determined that a $5,000 penalty for each violation was reasonable.
The court’s majority included Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French. Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill concurred in part and dissented in part.
While Justices Pfeifer and O’Neill agree that Zubaidah engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, they would instead impose $1,000 for each violation, for a total penalty of $4,000.
Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.
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