Attorney Suspended for Having Sex with Clients
The Ohio Supreme Court today suspended Lakewood attorney Jalal T. Sleibi from practicing law for two years, with six months stayed, because of his sexual relationships with four clients. In a 4-3 decision, the court conditioned the six-month stay on Sleibi’s participation in training about ethical boundaries and on compliance with his mental-health treatment plan.
Lawyer Becomes Involved with Four Clients
In his solo law practice, Sleibi focuses on consumer bankruptcy and criminal defense. An 18-year-old woman identified as H.W. hired Sleibi as her lawyer when she faced charges for driving under the influence and for traffic, drug, and alcohol violations.
Sleibi admitted the relationship became sexual soon after he began representing H.W. in February 2008 and lasted two to four months. He sent her up to 2,000 text messages, including many that were sexually explicit. After the relationship ended, the woman asked Sleibi to stop contacting her, but he did not and she had to change her phone number and email.
In 2010, Sleibi became sexually involved with three clients he was representing in separate bankruptcy cases. He sent sexually explicit text messages to two of them. One woman, L.F., alleged that Sleibi raped her in December 2010, though the attorney testified the relationship was consensual. Law enforcement investigated, and Sleibi was not charged.
L.F. and one of the other women filed grievances against Sleibi with the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. After the first grievance was filed, Sleibi began counseling and signed a contract with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP). During the disciplinary investigation, Sleibi disclosed his sexual activity with H.W. and the fourth woman.
Professional Conduct Rules Bar Sex With Clients
Lawyers are prohibited by a professional conduct rule from soliciting or engaging in sexual activity with a client, and they are required to keep all attorney-client relationships professional. (The rule contains an exception for those already involved in a consensual sexual relationship before legal representation begins.) Another rule states that attorneys are not to commit conduct that negatively reflects on their fitness to practice law.
In today’s opinion, written by Justice William M. O’Neill, the court concluded that Sleibi’s “egregious unprofessional conduct” violated both of these rules and harmed vulnerable clients.
Some Mitigating Factors Do Not Hold Weight
The parties agreed to specific mitigating and aggravating circumstances in the case. In addition, the court noted two additional factors that could lessen Sleibi’s sanction – evidence of good character and reputation separate from the misconduct, and his diagnosis of chronic anxiety and depression, which his therapist concluded led him to act out sexually.
However, Justice O’Neill declined to give more mitigating weight to Sleibi’s admission during the disciplinary proceedings that he had sexual encounters with the two clients who had not filed grievances. The court had already acknowledged his cooperation in the disciplinary action as mitigating.
In addition, the court was not persuaded that Sleibi was remorseful because he in part maintained that the relationships were consensual. Justice O’Neill noted that “the attorney-client relationship is inherently unequal” and “[c]onsensual sex with a client is precisely what is prohibited under the rule.” Pointing out that the record showed Sleibi agreed he harmed these clients but also tried to “discredit and embarrass” the women who filed grievances, the court concluded that Sleibi’s behavior contradicted his claims of remorsefulness.
Court Increases Suggested Sanction
The attorney disciplinary board recommended that Sleibi be suspended for two years with one year stayed on certain conditions. The court, however, decided that a longer unstayed suspension was necessary in this case.
“We are concerned that Sleibi committed this misconduct with four clients who were vulnerable,” Justice O’Neill wrote, explaining the lesser six-month stay. “Sleibi was blind to the harm he was causing his clients. He abused his roles as counselor and advocate to gratify his own sexual desires. It is egregious that these four clients were subjected to this treatment only because they needed legal representation in bankruptcy and criminal matters. We feel that the public can only benefit from this court’s demonstrated commitment to professionalism and to requiring that lawyers consistently put the needs of their clients before their own.”
During the six-month stay, Sleibi must adhere to his current OLAP contract and his mental-health treatment and complete six hours of education addressing ethical-boundary dilemmas for professionals. Sleibi must also serve probation during the stayed part of his suspension and for two additional years.
Joining the majority were Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, and Sharon L. Kennedy.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Judith L. French would have imposed an indefinite suspension, which was the sanction recommended by the bar association.
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