Supreme Court Indefinitely Suspends Two Attorneys
In separate disciplinary cases announced today, the Ohio Supreme Court indefinitely suspended two attorneys, each with more than 20 years of legal experience, from the practice of law.
- The Supreme Court indefinitely suspended with conditions Columbus attorney David C. Watson Jr.
- The Supreme Court indefinitely suspended with credit for time served Toledo attorney Deneen M. Marrelli.
Watson’s Violations Occurred While on Probation
In Columbus Bar Assn. v. Watson, the Supreme Court noted that in 2012 it found Watson had committed multiple violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct and sanctioned him to a one-year suspension of his law license. That suspension was stayed with the condition he contract with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) for help and serve a monitored probation. In February 2014, he completed his OLAP contract, but remained on probation. In September 2014, the Columbus Bar Association charged him with additional misconduct involving client matters, and a three-member panel of the Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct found he violated two rules. The panel and the full board recommended the high court indefinitely suspend him with his reinstatement subject to several conditions.
In a per curiam decision, the Court found the charges against Watson, who was admitted to practice law in Ohio in 1985, stemmed from two incidents. In 2011 and 2012, he accepted multiple retainer payments from a couple who asked Watson to represent them in a real estate dispute. Watson deposited the payments into his general business account rather than into a required interest-bearing client trust account. The couple became dissatisfied with his representation and filed a grievance against him with the Columbus Bar Association. The parties arbitrated the case and it resulted in Watson refunding the couple $3,862. It also led to the Board of Professional Conduct finding Watson failed to comply with the rule requiring retainers be held in the client trust account separate from general business accounts.
In June 2012, Watson accepted a $3,500 retainer from a couple to represent them as potential creditors in a bankruptcy case, which he also failed to deposit in the client trust account. Watson filed two documents on behalf of the couple. Watson conceded one document could have been completed by a non-lawyer, and the second was a two-page objection to the debtor’s plan. It was rejected by the bankruptcy court because it was based on incorrect information mistakenly taken from an unrelated case. The bankruptcy court overruled the objection because Watson failed to appear as counsel for the couple. Based on his action, the board found Watson violated the rules for charging and collecting a clearly excessive fee.
When considering the board’s recommendation of an indefinite suspension with conditions, the Supreme Court considered the aggravating factors of Watson’s prior disciplinary actions, engaging in multiple offenses, and having a selfish motive. The Court also considered mitigating factors including his timely restitution payment when ordered and having a cooperative attitude toward the disciplinary proceedings.
“Watson has demonstrated a pattern of the same misconduct in two separate disciplinary matters – namely, repeatedly failing to deposit client funds in his trust account. And even worse, when he engaged in the misconduct at issue here, his prior disciplinary case was either pending or he had already been placed on probation,” the Court wrote in the unanimous opinion.
Watson told the board he is no longer practicing law, and the Court ruled that if he wants to seek reinstatement, he has to complete four tasks including adjusting the fee taken from the couple he represented in bankruptcy court and successfully completing his probation conditions.
Marrelli Previously Suspended
In June 2013, the Mahoning County Bar Association filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Conduct charging Marrelli with seven rule violations arising out of her 2010 representation of man in a post-divorce custody matter.
The charges against her included charging a clearly excessive fee, dividing fees with lawyers who are not in the same firm without getting the client’s written approval, and not fully disclosing the identity of the other attorneys and the work they were doing.
Marrelli, who was admitted to practice law in Ohio in 1989, did not respond to the complaint brought by the bar association, and the Court imposed an interim default suspension. The board set a hearing for Marrelli to demonstrate why it should not transform the interim suspension into an indefinite suspension, and Marrelli was also charged with violating rules for not assisting in a disciplinary investigation or keeping the Court apprised of her residential and office addresses.
When considering a sanction, the board found that Marrelli was not acting with a dishonest or selfish motive and she refunded the client a portion of the retainer paid. But it also noted the client failed to appear at two court appearances where Marrelli was to represent him. The Court, in a unanimous decision, adopted the board’s recommendation that Marrelli should receive an indefinite suspension with credit for the time served under the interim default suspension.
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