Two Attorneys Receive One-Year Suspensions
In separate cases, the Ohio Supreme Court suspended attorneys from Columbus and Howard for two years. The court stayed one year of each attorney’s suspension as long as they meet certain conditions.
Columbus attorney has affair with client’s wife
The Supreme Court today suspended Columbus attorney James D. Owen for having a sexual relationship with the wife of a client. The court noted in its decision that the professional conduct rules do not address this issue nor had there been any case law about this type of situation.
In a 6-1 vote, the court imposed a two-year suspension, with the second year stayed on conditions, for Owen’s misconduct.
In 1997, Owen began representing Robert Caulley, who had been accused of murdering his parents three years earlier. Owen was originally hired to research a false confession defense in the capital case. Given his work on part of the case, a trial judge removed Caulley’s court-appointed lawyers and put Owen in their place.
The accused’s wife relocated from Texas to Ohio in summer 1997 and helped Owen with case-related tasks. Several days before Caulley’s trial began that September, Owen and Caulley’s wife started a sexual relationship, which continued until August or September of 1998. The jury found Caulley guilty of two lesser offenses, not punishable by death, and he was sent to prison.
Caulley found out about the affair years later, and the Ohio Public Defender contacted Owen in 2011 to tell him it was asking the court for a new trial because of his relationship with Caulley’s wife. Owen admitted his actions and cooperated in the efforts to gain a new trial, which was granted. He also reported his misconduct to the Disciplinary Counsel about a month later and entered into a five-year contract with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) in early 2012. He sought treatment for anxiety, depression, and severe attention deficit disorder.
In a per curiam opinion, the court found that a sexual relationship with the spouse of a current client creates a conflict of interest that compromises the trust and confidence between the client and attorney.
The court has disapproved of lawyers engaging in sexual conduct with clients, and it today upheld the same principle for sexual relationships with a client’s spouse because “the vulnerability of the client and the betrayal of trust are the same.”
Owen’s suspension with one year stayed is contingent on him complying with his OLAP contract and committing no further misconduct.
In the court’s majority were Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor dissented. She would have imposed an indefinite suspension.
Howard attorney fails to disclose all assets in bankruptcy
Following a personal crisis in 2004, Paul D. Harmon of Howard stated that he began to have financial troubles and eventually consulted with a bankruptcy attorney five years later. In Harmon’s bankruptcy paperwork and proceedings, he declared that he had fully disclosed his assets.
The Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint alleging that he had not provided all his financial information, and Harmon agreed that he had not disclosed five assets in his bankruptcy petition: the possible damages from a defamation lawsuit he had filed; his interest in his wife’s bank account; a security deposit for his office lease; stocks; and money owed by clients.
He maintained that he had not lied about his assets, but had made mistakes, and claimed that his bankruptcy attorneys were responsible for the misconduct.
The Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline was not persuaded, however, and found that Harmon violated three professional conduct rules. In today’s 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed.
While Harmon had entered into a contract with OLAP in October 2010 related to alcohol and gambling problems, he had not been in contact with the program for 18 months before his disciplinary hearing. And a week before the hearing, he also revoked a release that would have allowed OLAP to discuss the case with the Disciplinary Counsel.
“The board was clearly frustrated by Harmon’s efforts to conceal this information, which hampered its efforts to assess his ability to deal with the crises in his life and raised additional concerns regarding the risk of harm to future clients,” the court’s per curiam opinion stated.
Because Harmon has not accepted responsibility for failing to fully disclose his assets, has concealed details about the personal crisis that apparently led to his financial ruin and misconduct, did not abide by his OLAP agreement, and prevented OLAP from discussing his struggles, the court suspended Harmon for two years, with the second year stayed on conditions, to protect the public from future harm.
The court ordered that Harmon commit no further misconduct, undergo a mental-health evaluation, and comply with any treatment recommendations from OLAP. If he does not meet the conditions, he will serve the full two-year suspension.
Making up the court’s majority were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Sharon L. Kennedy.
In dissent, Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill would have imposed a 12-month suspension with six months stayed.
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.
PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.