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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Cincinnati Attorney Indefinitely Suspended

A Cincinnati attorney with multiple alcohol-related convictions was indefinitely suspended from the practice of law by the Ohio Supreme Court today.

Stephen J. Ball’s indefinite suspension is based on his September 2013 sentence for operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OVI) and disorderly conduct as well as other prior crimes and lying to investigators. Ball had argued that his alcohol addiction and the treatment he sought to overcome it should lessen his penalty, but the Supreme Court in a per curiam decision found little evidence he was complying with his treatment program or that the addiction could explain his lawless behavior.

Arrested for OVI and Using Stolen License Plates
In December 2012, Ball consumed eight or nine beers and started to drive home when a Hamilton County sheriff’s deputy attempted to stop him. Ball drove to the nearby subdivision where he lived, stopped the car near his driveway, exited, and ran as the deputy yelled for him to stop. He was eventually caught, physically restrained, and arrested. He was charged with OVI, obstructing official business, driving under suspension, and receiving stolen property for using a stolen license plate. He pled guilty to OVI and disorderly conduct, and was sentenced to probation, ordered to participate in a residential-treatment program, and had his driving privileges limited.

In September 2013, the Cincinnati Bar Association questioned Ball about the stolen license plate on his vehicle, and he initially told the investigators that he purchased the car from his father and kept his father’s plate on the car. But when he could not explain why the plate did not match his father’s vehicle registration, Ball admitted this was the second time he had obtained a stolen license plate and used it to prevent law enforcement officers from discovering he was driving with a suspended driver’s license.

The bar association filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Conduct alleging multiple violations of the rules governing Ohio lawyers that stemmed not only from the December 2012 arrest, but also for overdrawing his state-required client trust account and practicing law during a period when his law license was inactive.

Troubles Related to Law Practice
Ball acknowledged he received settlement payments on behalf of a client. He processed the payments through his client trust account. The person owing his client the settlement contacted Ball to let him know he was behind on his payments and would be sending money soon to pay the whole settlement. Ball issued a check to the client for the whole amount of the settlement knowing the account did not yet contain the full amount to be paid. The person did not send the remaining payments and Ball sent a partial payment to his client while intending to stop payment on the first check. But he failed to alert the bank, leading to his client account being overdrawn.

The professional conduct board found that Ball additionally overdrew his client account two more times, and explained the mistakes were made when he started doing his own accounting after his paralegal took another job. The board concluded that Ball violated the professional rules by demonstrating an inability to manage his financial accounts and for writing checks when he knew the accounts had insufficient funds.

The board also noted that Ball’s attorney registration was inactive from late January 2014 to early March 2014, but that he continued to make contact with parties in cases for his clients without informing them that he was on inactive attorney status.

Prior Alcohol Arrests and Questions of Treatment Impact Sanction
While the board recommended the indefinite suspension, Ball argued he should receive an 18-month to 24-month suspension based on the precedent of suspensions the Court has handed down to lawyers who had similar histories of rule violations.

The Court considered the mitigating factors Ball submitted in seeking a reduced sanction including having no prior disciplinary record, self-reporting his OVI, and providing evidence of his good character and reputation. He had sought to have the Court consider his alcohol dependency and treatment as another mitigating factor.

The Court’s opinion notes Ball had multiple encounters with law enforcement prior to and after becoming an attorney starting with a 2000 charge for underage consumption, a December 2003 dismissed charge of public intoxication, and an April 2007 open-container violation. He was twice charged with OVI in 2002, with the second offense happening when his license was suspended. In 2007 he was charged with OVI, possession of drug paraphernalia and an unloaded firearm, in which he was ordered to serve seven-to-10 days in a residential treatment program, followed by intensive outpatient programming and probation.

Ball participated in the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) following the 2007 arrest, but failed to complete his contract. He entered a second five-year contract with OLAP in 2012 after the OVI conviction, but failed to comply with its terms and entered another OLAP contract in 2013.

Considering Ball’s request for a stayed suspension of no more than 24-months, the Court wrote that there was some relationship between his alcohol dependency and the OVI offense, but alcohol addiction does not explain his decision to use stolen license plates, or fail to abide by the rules for practicing law. The opinion noted one of his counselors stated Ball could return to the competent, ethical practice of law “if he continues to treat his alcoholism,” but that Ball did not present sufficient evidence that he was actually following the treatment plan.

“Moreover, if we were to find that Ball had established his alcohol dependency as a mitigating factor, it would only serve to mitigate a small portion of his misconduct,” the Court wrote. “And that misconduct and mitigating evidence would still be overshadowed by Ball’s subsequent misconduct – lying to (the bar association’s) investigator about his use of stolen license plates, writing bad checks, overdrawing his client trust account, and practicing law while his license was inactive – all of which occurred while he was sober and in recovery.”

The Court required Ball to take several steps if he wants to be reinstated, including completing an OLAP-approved treatment plan, complying with terms of a prior OLAP plan, and completing legal education related to managing a law office.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill joined the majority opinion.

Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Sharon L. Kennedy dissented indicating they would have imposed a two-year suspension with six months stayed on conditions.

2015-0286. Cincinnati Bar Assn. v. Ball, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-785.

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