Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Supreme Court Disbars Two Attorneys

In two separate cases, the Ohio Supreme Court decided to permanently prohibit an attorney from Lima and one from Independence, Kentucky, from practicing law in Ohio.

Kentucky attorney steals from law firm, fails to do legal work
In a unanimous decision approving the disbarment of Geoffrey P. Damon, the court determined that the Kentucky resident committed “two distinct courses of misconduct.”

First, as an associate for the Cincinnati law firm Butkovich & Crosthwaite Company, Damon misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars. He had agreed to remit any fees he earned to the firm, yet he deposited payments from clients into his own trust account instead of the firm’s and did not report the payments to the law office.

In March 2013, Damon pled guilty to grand theft, a felony, for the money stolen from Butkovich & Crosthwaite. He was sentenced to three years of community control, with a prison term if he violated any of the sentence’s conditions. He was also ordered to pay nearly $60,000 in restitution in addition to more than $55,000 he had paid back before his conviction. The exact amount he stole is unknown because he did not keep records in the cases.

Second, in eight client matters between 2008 and 2011, Damon accepted retainers from people for claims that were either frivolous or meritless, and he took money from other clients then failed to do the agreed-to work. In one instance, Damon was paid a $10,000 retainer and $15,000 for expenses to handle a legal-malpractice claim. A few months later, when he could not find an expert witness to support the case, he dismissed the lawsuit. He refunded none of the client’s money and kept no records of the time he spent on the case.

These actions are “tantamount to theft,” Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote in the court’s opinion. While noting Damon’s lack of prior disciplinary record and his repayment of some of the stolen funds, Justice Kennedy pointed out that he only began making restitution after his misconduct was discovered, he has refused to acknowledge his wrongdoing, and he caused substantial financial harm to his former law firm. For the continuing public confidence in the judicial system, the court concluded that disbarment was the appropriate sanction for Damon.

2013-1984. Cincinnati Bar Assn. v. Damon, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-3765.

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Lima attorney gambles away much of aunt’s and nephew’s money
Stephen L. Becker of Lima was disbarred by the court for misappropriating funds entrusted to him as guardian for his nephew, caretaker for his aunt, and executor of his aunt’s estate following her death, as well as in several other client matters. Becker’s misconduct primarily fueled a gambling addiction, the court stated in its decision.

In 1983, Becker was appointed as guardian of the estate of his nephew, who was then a minor and suffers from severe developmental disabilities. Becker made various “loans” from the guardian account to friends, his daughter, and himself. The loans were not disclosed, as required, to the probate court.

Becker also cared for an elderly aunt for more than 20 years. He was named her power of attorney, and they shared a joint bank account. In July and August 2005, Becker wrote $37,000 in checks to four casinos. Between October and December, he withdrew $9,500 in cash from the account, wrote three checks to casinos totaling $22,000, and took $25,000 from the account to repay money he had improperly taken from his nephew. The court noted other misappropriations in 2007, 2008, and 2010.

After his aunt died, Becker, as executor of her estate, also inappropriately used funds and intentionally filed false and misleading reports about how the money was used and distributed to his aunt’s beneficiaries.

In the court’s unanimous decision, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer wrote that it is clear Becker has a gambling addiction given the substantial amount of money he paid to casinos from these accounts. While a gambling problem could be mitigating in some cases, Justice Pfeifer noted that “Becker’s failure to pursue any kind of consistent help for his problem eliminates this factor as possible mitigation.”

He concluded, “[W]e have consistently stated that ‘the primary purpose of the disciplinary process is not to punish the offender but to protect the public from lawyers who are unworthy of the trust and confidence essential to the attorney-client relationship.’ … In this case, it is obvious that an extreme sanction is necessary to protect the public. … Given the extent and duration of the various misappropriations and the helplessness of some of the victims (including a disabled nephew and an elderly aunt), we are confident that disbarment is the appropriate sanction.”

2013-1257. Disciplinary Counsel v. Becker, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-3665.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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