Independence Attorney Receives Suspension
An attorney from Independence will serve a one-year suspension with six months stayed for failing to keep his cousin informed about matters related to a trust he managed for her. The Ohio Supreme Court imposed the sanction today in a 5-2 decision.
Robert J. Belinger created a living trust in 1992 for his aunt and uncle. During the times relevant to this case, Belinger served as the trustee and managed the trust’s assets. The surviving beneficiary of the trust is Sister Barbara Cervenka, Belinger’s cousin and a Dominican nun who lives in Michigan.
In 2004, Belinger loaned $100,000 from the trust to his sons’ business. He informed Cervenka that he had made a loan, but didn’t indicate in a letter he sent her that the loan was unsecured and that he had personally guaranteed it and had a financial interest in the company. Belinger also made a loan from the trust to a friend, and that loan had a $350,000 balance in 2004. Both loans went into default.
Belinger declared bankruptcy personally in October 2010, but did not tell Cervenka, failed to notify her in writing that the trust was a creditor in his bankruptcy, and neglected to return her calls in a reasonable time.
Cervenka hired a new attorney in Michigan to handle the trust and fired Belinger as trustee. They did not discover the defaulted loans until April 2011 and learned even later that year that Belinger had filed for bankruptcy.
Cervenka sued Belinger in Cuyahoga County for breaching his duties as trustee, and the cousins ultimately agreed to a settlement.
Belinger and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, which filed the charges against the attorney, agreed during the disciplinary process that he did not keep Cervenka informed about matters important to the trust or details related to the loans. He also failed to tell her about litigation affecting the trust.
The panel of the disciplinary board that considered the case identified several mitigating factors, found no aggravating circumstances, and suggested a public reprimand. However, the board rejected the panel’s conclusion that Belinger lacked a selfish or dishonest motive. Taking assets from Cervenka’s trust to loan money to family and friends was an aggravating circumstance, the board found. It instead recommended an increased punishment of a one-year suspension with six months stayed if Belinger commits no further misconduct and pays the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.
In a per curiam opinion, the Court’s majority adopted the board’s findings and recommended sanction.
Joining the majority were Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Judith L. French dissented and would have suspended Belinger for one year with no time stayed.
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