Two Ohio Attorneys Suspended
In separate disciplinary cases announced today, the Ohio Supreme Court suspended two Ohio attorneys from the practice of law.
- The Supreme Court suspended for two years, with one year stayed on conditions, Columbus attorney Beverly J. Corner.
- The Court suspended Cincinnati attorney Edwin L. Vardiman Jr. for one year, with six months stayed on conditions.
Corner Mishandled Cases, Client Funds
In Disciplinary Counsel v. Corner, the Court noted that six weeks after an initial three-count complaint was brought against Corner by the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel, a second separate complaint of misconduct was submitted by the Columbus Bar Association. The Court’s Board of Professional Conduct consolidated the two cases before considering charges against her.
In a 6-1 per curiam decision, the Court first considered a complaint filed by a client seeking Corner’s help filing a bankruptcy plan in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 2011. The bankruptcy trustee rejected the initial filing for several errors including providing the wrong Social Security number. The court twice rejected Corner’s submissions because of errors, and directed Corner to file an order to receive an extension of time to file a second bankruptcy petition. Corner did not, and when asked by the judge about her inaction, she stated she “forgot.”
The bankruptcy court ordered Corner to return $1,800 the client had paid her to file the case, but Corner told the court that she had not received payment from the client. However, an invoice revealed that she had been paid 11 months earlier. The bankruptcy court issued an order concluding Corner “did not have sufficient skills to adequately represent debtors.” Corner provided evidence that she paid the client back in April 2014.
The board found Corner violated several rules of attorney conduct in the matter including requirements that an attorney “provide competent representation to a client,” “act with reasonable diligence in representing a client,” and “promptly deliver funds that a client is entitled to receive.”
Additional Charges Brought for Mishandling Funds
The Court also agreed to a board finding that in 2010, Corner was investigated by the disciplinary counsel regarding her misuse of a separate state-required bank account in which she was required to hold client funds. Disciplinary counsel gave Corner time to work with her bookkeeper to learn how to appropriately maintain this client fund separate from her own business account. But in 2012, a second disciplinary counsel investigation found she continued to inappropriately mingle client funds with her own funds, and the board found she violated three more rules for handling client money.
The Court also found that Corner committed additional rule violations in eight additional client matters, including: mishandling of fees; failing to promptly distribute settlement proceeds to clients; issuing incorrect settlement statements in order to inflate her fee; and improperly dividing fees with other attorneys helping her with client cases without the clients’ written consent.
Disciplinary counsel also charged Corner with charging an excessive fee for service in a personal-injury case where the client had first retained another lawyer. The first attorney sought about $11,000 from a future settlement in order to provide Corner the information to proceed with the client’s case, and Corner was able to negotiate the cost down to about $9,300.
The client eventually settled the matter for $145,000 and Corner had agreed to a 30 percent contingency payment for her fee. When the case was settled, Corner took 30 percent and deducted the $9,300 to pay the other attorney from the client’s share of the settlement. Disciplinary counsel argued that resulted in the client paying about $52,800, which is a total 36 percent fee to have the case settled. It cited an Indiana Supreme Court decision that a client should only have to pay one contingency fee, and that the attorneys should split it.
The Ohio Supreme Court noted the Indiana decision stated the rule should only apply “in the absence of express written fee arrangements,” and in Corner’s case there was a written agreement. Based on the total amount of the fee for both attorneys and the client’s understanding that the first attorney fee was reduced and that it would come from his portion of the settlement, the Court found the fee was not excessive.
In considering sanctions against Corner, the Court noted she had no prior disciplinary record, cooperated with the investigations, and that she contracted with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) to continue counseling for depression. The Court agreed to stay the second year of suspension provided that Corner does not engage in further misconduct, participates in appropriate mental health treatment, and fulfills her obligations to OLAP.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill joined the majority opinion.
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger dissented writing she would indefinitely suspend Corner.
Vardiman Falsely Signed Documents
Vardiman had been briefly suspended by the Court in December 2007 for failing to register as an attorney, and faced charges brought against him in 2014 by the Warren County Bar Association and the Cincinnati Bar Association. The Court’s 4-3 per curiam opinion noted that both complaints centered on ethical violations regarding signatures on documents.
In the Warren County case, Vardiman represented a father seeking to reduce his child support obligation, and he initially obtained the signature of the mother, who was not represented by an attorney. Four documents requiring the mother’s signature were rejected by the trial court, and when a revised set of documents was filed by Vardiman, the court discovered he had signed the mother’s signature without her authority.
Vardiman claimed he signed the mother’s name on the documents because his client was getting anxious about the time the process was taking. The board found Vardiman violated several attorney rules including “knowingly making a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal,” “committing an illegal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty and trustworthiness,” and “engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.”
The Cincinnati complaint came when Vardiman prepared a client’s will that required two witness signatures. Vardiman signed his own name as a witness then signed the name of another person without permission. That act violated the professional rules against “committing an illegal act,” and “engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”
In determining the appropriate sanction for Vardiman’s misconduct, the Court noted that his brief registration suspension was due to an oversight and that he did not have any other prior disciplinary issues. The court also considered that he had contracted with OLAP for three years to treat an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“Vardiman’s conduct was at least partially driven by his recently diagnosed ADHD, which his treating psychologist described as an ‘inborn neurological problem.’ Given Vardiman’s acceptance of responsibility for his actions; his active participation in OLAP and effective treatment for this disorder; and numerous letters attesting to his good character, reputation, and professional competence, we agree that a one-year suspension, with the final six months stayed on conditions, is the appropriate sanction for his misconduct,” the Court wrote.
Justices Pfeifer, Lanzinger, Kennedy, and French joined the opinion.
Chief Justice O’Connor and Justices O’Donnell and O’Neill dissented, writing they would not have stayed any portion of the suspension.
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