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Court News Ohio

Cincinnati Attorney Indefinitely Suspended

The Ohio Supreme Court today indefinitely suspended a Cincinnati attorney based on complaints from several clients, improperly sharing fees with an unauthorized legal referral service, and falsely representing that he was a partner in a law firm after the firm dissolved.

In a 4-3 per curiam decision, the Supreme Court indefinitely suspended Robert H. Hoskins and set three conditions he must meet before the Court would consider reinstatement. Prior to his indefinite suspension, the Court had placed Hoskins on a 60-day suspension in April 2015 after he was suspended from the practice of law in Kentucky.  Although Hoskins claimed that he was later reinstated in Kentucky, he did not apply for reinstatement in Ohio. Therefore, his suspension remained in effect.

In February 2014, the Cincinnati Bar Association filed a complaint against Hoskins with the Board of Professional Conduct alleging multiple violations of the rules governing Ohio attorneys. The bar association alleged he neglected client matters, failed to reasonably respond to clients, did not provide competent representation, engaged in dishonest conduct, and committed other infractions.

Shared Fees for Social Security Disability Referrals
Hoskins contracted to accept Social Security disability cases from Citizens Disability, a Massachusetts company that describes itself as a national disability advocates group. Hoskins testified he paid the organization half of the 25 percent contingency fee he received from the cases referred to him and had a written agreement to pay the firm up to $3,000 per case for advertising, screening, and other case assistance.

Ohio rules allow a lawyer to share legal fees with a nonlawyer in limited circumstances, including with a nonprofit organization that recommends employment of a lawyer. The nonprofit must meet certain standards to qualify for fee sharing, and Citizens Disability had not complied with Ohio regulations for a lawyer-referral service.

Hoskins argued that his arrangement was permissible because Citizens Disability is operated by an attorney and his actions were not directed by nonattorneys. However, the board found Citizens Disability did not qualify under any rules that would allow the fee-sharing, and that Hoskins violated the rule for paying to be recommended by an unauthorized referral service.

False Registration Implied Partnership in Firm
The board also found Hoskins violated  rules  prohibiting lawyers from making false or misleading claims about their services or implying they practice in a partnership or other organization when it is not true. Hoskins practiced for a time in the firm of Hoskins & Muzzo LLP, but the firm was dissolved in 2011. Hoskins did not update his attorney registration to reflect the change, and admitted to the violation.

Infractions for Improper Handling of Client Matters
The bar association’s complaint also alleged violations for five client matters including his misrepresentation of a client attempting to file Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy court found his filings contained multiple deficiencies, and when it rejected the Chapter 13 filing Hoskins moved to reopen the case. He then attempted to withdraw the request without informing the client. Hoskins failed to appear at two hearings the court scheduled, and it subsequently ordered him to pay a $500 sanction before June 2013. He did not actually pay until February 2015, several months after disciplinary hearings against him had started.

The board found the client made clear his objective for filing bankruptcy was to avoid foreclosures on his properties and he had no knowledge of Hoskins’s move to not reopen his case after the initial filings were rejected. When Hoskins failed to appear at the hearings, the client filed handwritten motions in court asking it to consider his bankruptcy and stop the foreclosures sales.

Two other clients filed complaints against Hoskins for his handling of their marriage dissolutions. In one case, he agreed to draft orders to divide the martial retirement assets, but he failed to do so and disregarded numerous requests by the client to complete them.

In another matter, a client paid him $1,275 to dissolve a marriage, but before Hoskins completed the necessary documents, the client discharged him and requested a billing statement and refund of any unearned fees. Hoskins did not provide either, and failed to respond to a later request for a full refund. At his disciplinary hearing in July 2014, he delivered a $1,500 refund check to the client that was not drawn from his required client trust account. He admitted he did not have a client trust account at the time he accepted the client’s money.

Misrepresentations to Clients and Court
Hoskins also failed to attend a hearing in Adams County Common Pleas Court on behalf of a client, alleging he had a scheduling conflict with a hearing in Indiana. His office arranged to send another attorney to the Adams County hearing where the judge continued the case and requested documentation of Hoskins’s scheduling conflict. Hoskins had learned the morning of the hearing that the Indiana hearing was postponed, and he did not inform the Adams County judge of that when providing the requested information.

When contacted by disciplinary investigators, Hoskins implied the attorney attending the hearing met with the client, but the claim was contradicted by the judge and the other attorney who had not met the client or had information about his case prior to appearing in court.

Hoskins was also found to have made misleading statements during disciplinary proceedings regarding a case in which he represented a client in a personal-injury case arising from an automobile accident.

At the sole meeting the client had with Hoskins, she gave him photographs of her car and correspondence from the other driver’s insurance company. In August 2013, the insurance company sent the client a letter hoping to resolve the matter in 45 days, but Hoskins did not contact the company until after 45 days, and then failed to respond to the client’s messages regarding the proposed settlement until January 2014. The client terminated Hoskins’s representation and asked for her file, which included the accident photographs.

She did not receive the file and the client’s new attorney contacted Hoskins for the file, but Hoskins never sent the file or photographs. He did not take action until the bar association relayed that the client filed a grievance against him. Hoskins told the bar association that he had sent the new attorney the information in August 2014, but did not actually send the information until December 2014.

Board Recommends Indefinite Suspension
When considering the appropriate sanctions, the board found there were no mitigating factors that would lead it to reduce any punishment it considered. It did find several aggravating factors, including that Hoskins had a prior disciplinary record, engaged in multiple counts of misconduct, refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his actions, submitted false statements during disciplinary proceedings, and failed to cooperate in the disciplinary process.

In response to the board’s recommendation of an indefinite suspension, Hoskins acknowledged he made some mistakes, but stated his conduct was not indicative of his usual practice and that a fully stayed 12-month suspension was the appropriate sanction.

Court Finds Hoskins Disobedient and Dishonest
The Court stated it found that “Hoskins does not appreciate the magnitude of his own misconduct,” and that his misdeeds touch virtually every aspect of his law practice from how he attracts clients to how he conducts himself with the courts handling his client’s legal matters and how he conducts himself with the courts handling his own legal issues.

“His misconduct demonstrates a disturbing pattern of neglect and an ongoing failure to comply with established rules and procedures — not to mention a flagrant disobedience of court orders and a troubling propensity to engage in dishonesty when his actions are questioned,” the opinion stated.

The Court also noted that while this case was pending, the Court also found Hoskins in contempt of his April 2015 suspension, having received evidence that he continued to practice law in several matters while under suspension. In one instance, he created and used an email account in the name of a former colleague and impersonated the colleague to participate in legal matters.

The Court required that Hoskins’s potential reinstatement be conditioned on his completion of a continuing-legal-education course focused on law-office management, obtaining a passing score on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, and payment of the costs of the disciplinary proceeding. 

Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill joined the opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, and Judith Ann Lanzinger dissented, stating they would disbar Hoskins.

2015-1003. Cincinnati Bar Assn. v. Hoskins, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-4576.

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