Cleveland Attorney Permanently Disbarred
The Ohio Supreme Court today disbarred a Cleveland attorney for professional misconduct including settling personal injury matters without the consent of his clients, failing to promptly deliver funds to a client, and engaging in a sexual relationship with another client.
The Supreme Court voted 5-2 to disbar John B. Frenden. In a per curiam opinion, the Court stated the Board of Professional Conduct found “a significant deficiency in Frenden’s core ethical obligations of honesty, trustworthiness, diligence, and reliability.”
The Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association had charged Frenden in 2015 with several violations of the rules governing attorneys that stemmed from four client matters.
Accident Settlement Mishandled
In 2011, Diane Dubois hired Frenden to represent her in a personal-injury matter in which she was injured by another driver. Frenden told her in January 2011 to see a chiropractor, but had no further contact with Dubois for the rest of the year. Frenden failed to gather adequate information to fully evaluate her claim, and when an adjustor for the at-fault driver’s insurance company tried to contact Frenden in 2012 he did not respond. The adjustor wrote to Frenden with an offer to settle Dubois’ claim for $28,000, asserting she had a preexisting injury.
Dubois testified that Frenden told her the settlement offer was for $83,000. But the insurer had not made such an offer, nor had Frenden demanded that amount. Dubois’ damages amounted to $41,000 and Frenden admitted his typical demand would have been for about four times the amount, approximately $164,000. He claimed DuBois agreed to settle for $35,000.
Frenden wrongly reported to the insurance company that Dubois was a Medicare recipient when she was a recipient of another government program. The insurer required Frenden to have Dubois sign a consent form to report the injuries to the federal government as required by Medicare. Frenden returned the $35,000 settlement check and sought to renegotiate the settlement.
The statute of limitations on Dubois, claim expired in January 2013, and Dubois was unable to reach Frenden until the following month. Frenden sent the insurer the required authorization form, which Dubois testified she did not sign and noted her name was misspelled. Frenden instructed Dubois to sign the $35,000 settlement check without showing her the amount of the settlement. Nearly one year after the settlement, and after Dubois filed a grievance with the bar association, Frenden released the funds. He sent Dubois about $20,800 and the rest to reimburse a government insurance program and medical providers for her treatment.
A three-member panel of the professional conduct board found Frenden violated several rules when representing Dubois, including failing to provide competent representation and failing to keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter. For forging Dubois’ signature, the panel found he violated the rule that prohibits lawyers from engaging in conduct that negatively reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to practice.
Case Dismissed Without Client’s Consent
In 2008, Frenden agreed to represent Diane Sigler in a personal-injury matter after she and her son were injured in an automobile accident. Frenden filed the lawsuit in 2010, erroneously naming Sigler’s husband, rather than son, as a plaintiff. The week before the trial was to begin in 2011, the opposing attorney complained that Frenden failed to file a required expert report regarding Sigler’s injuries.
Frenden voluntarily dismissed the case just days before the trial without Sigler’s knowledge or consent, and refiled the case again in 2012. Frenden settled the case for $5,000 even though Sigler’s damages were nearly $12,000, and Frenden admitted he would typically demand $46,000 to settle a case like Sigler’s. The opposing attorney sent Frenden the check but asked him not to deposit it until he returned a release form, but Frenden disregarded the request and also deposited the check without Sigler’s signature.
Frenden also represented Sigler in a divorce proceeding, and she paid him $1,500 in advance. Frenden did not comply with Sigler’s request to hire a forensic accountant to obtain information about her husband’s finances, and Frenden failed to keep appointments with her to discuss the case. Sigler provided Frenden with 725 pages of documents to provide to her husband’s lawyer during discovery. Frenden failed to document that he delivered the information, which the opposing lawyer stated he did not receive. Sigler personally delivered the documents to the opposing attorney just two days before the trial.
Frenden admitted he was not prepared for the trial. The parties negotiated a settlement, but Sigler wanted to indicate that she signed under duress. Frenden did not permit it. As they were leaving the courthouse, Frenden informed Sigler he had no malpractice insurance. Sigler sued Frenden for malpractice in 2015.
The panel found Frenden failed to competently represent Sigler in both matters, failed to keep her informed about the status of her legal matters, failed to obtain her consent to settle a case, failed to notify her in writing that he did not have malpractice insurance, and committed other violations of rules.
Representation of Exotic Dancer in Divorce and Custody Matters
Frenden agreed to represent a woman identified in court documents as A.S. in a divorce in 2013. He met A.S. at a club where she worked as an exotic dancer. Frenden filed an answer and counterclaim in the case, but waited three months to seek court-ordered support for A.S. and her three children.
A.S. estimated she paid Frenden about $3,000 for his representation and testified he asked for more money and for her to use her government food card to purchase groceries for him and to clean his house to offset her legal fees. Frenden did not maintain records of payments or submit any bills to A.S. to pay him.
Frenden sent a text to A.S. threatening to take her infant twins to the county’s child protective services if she did not pay him. He also took revealing pictures of her with plans to publish a calendar, claiming he would split the proceeds and apply his half to her attorney fees. She testified that she engaged in sexual relations with Frenden “because she felt it was the only way to get him to leave her alone.”
The professional conduct board found Frenden violated the rule that bars a lawyer from engaging in sex with a client unless it is a consensual relationship that existed prior to the client-lawyer relationship.
A.S. also allowed Frenden’s secretary to take physical custody of her twins in early 2014 with the understanding they would be returned in a few months, but the secretary retained an attorney and sought permanent custody of the children. Frenden continued to represent A.S. in matters, but did not advise her on how to regain physical custody of her children. The board found Frenden violated the rules against creating a conflict of interest.
In addition to the violations the board found for his representation of clients, at the time of his disciplinary hearing Frenden could not properly account for $18,000 in his client trust account, and admitted his account records were inaccurate and in disarray.
Frenden Claims Sadness Impacted Performance
When considering a sanction, the board noted that Frenden had no prior disciplinary record and that he experienced a stressful period of his life after discovering he was not the father of a child he believed to be his. He claimed his sadness made it difficult to perform as an attorney, but testified he had never been diagnosed with depression, that he was not under the care of a psychiatrist, and that he remained able to function.
The board found Frenden acted with a dishonest and selfish motive, had a pattern of misconduct involving multiple offenses, failed to cooperate in the disciplinary process, and made false statements to the bar association’s investigator. The three-member panel hearing Frenden’s case recommended he be indefinitely suspended with conditions to be reinstated.
“Noting the egregious nature of Frenden’s conduct, however, which according to the board involved theft and forgery but also harm to vulnerable clients, the board recommended that Frenden be permanently disbarred from the practice of law in Ohio,” the opinion stated.
The Court stated the record clearly and convincingly demonstrated Frenden violated the professional conduct rules, and disbarred him.
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