Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Attorney Who Misappropriated $363,000 Permanently Disbarred

A Columbus personal-injury attorney was permanently disbarred by the Ohio Supreme Court today for misappropriating more than $363,000 in settlements funds, mostly by not paying parties, other than her clients, who were entitled to portions of the settlement.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court disbarred Shawn A. Little, finding she misappropriated money in 23 client cases, ranging from $3.80 to more than $201,000. The Court noted that at her Board of Professional Conduct hearing, Little’s testimony was “disingenuous, misleading, and manipulative,” and the board noted that she “selectively stole funds under circumstances where the clients were not likely to complain.”

Little Fails to Pay Client’s Doctors Bills, Expenses
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a 25-count complaint against Little for the misuse of the funds and inadequate record-keeping, and the parties stipulated to the wrongful nature of her conduct over a seven-year period that ended in 2014.

The disciplinary counsel claimed that Little engaged in a similar pattern in 22 of the 23 client matters, where she was charged with violating the rules governing Oho attorneys. In most cases, after settling her clients’ cases, she deposited the funds into her client trust account, paid her clients their share of the money, took her attorney fees and expenses, and then wrongfully withheld the remaining amounts.

Most of those not paid were creditors or co-counsel entitled to a share of the funds. The Court concluded that in most cases, she stole between $500 and $11,000 in client funds, and used the money to settle unrelated cases or for her own personal and professional benefit, such as paying office-related expenses.

Court Cites Examples
The opinion noted that Little’s service to client James Boyd illustrated her conduct. She represented him in a personal injury matter and obtained a $25,700 settlement. She disbursed $11,000 to Boyd, paid herself about $8,600 for her fee, and $1,300 for her expenses. She then retained the $4,800 balance that she earmarked to pay liens to Boyd’s medical providers. Instead of paying the providers, she used the money for other purposes.

Her largest misappropriation occurred during her representation of Corinne, Matt, and Kathy McIntire in a personal injury matter. She obtained a $637,500 settlement for the trio and disbursed about $208,000 to them. She retained about $208,000 for her attorney fee and $12,900 for her expenses. Instead of paying $201,000 to creditors and for other expenses, she spent the money for other purposes including paying off a lien for another client in an unrelated case.

Little Self Reports Misconduct
In 2014, Little self-reported her misconduct to the disciplinary counsel and informed the office that she had begun to pay restitution. The opinion stated at the time the parties agreed to her violations, Little still owed nearly $105,000. She also admitted that since 2007, she failed to maintain the required ledgers for her client trust account, which made it difficult for her and investigators to determine the source and purpose of many of her financial transactions.

The board found Little committed one count of failing to hold client property in an interest-bearing account that is separate from the attorney’s own property, and one count of failing to maintain a record for each client on whose behalf money was found. She committed 23 violations of the professional-conduct rule requiring lawyers to notify those entitled to funds received on behalf of the client and properly pay them, and 23 violations of the rule prohibiting attorneys from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Because the seven-year duration of misconduct was so egregious, the board found that she engaged in conduct that adversely reflects on a lawyer’s fitness to practice law. In the opinion, the Court agreed with the board’s findings of misconduct.

Board Considers Sanction
The opinion noted that the board considers several issues before recommending a sanction, including aggravating circumstances that can increase a penalty and mitigating factors that can lessen it.

The board found Little acted with a dishonest or selfish motive, committed multiple offenses, engaged in a pattern of misconduct, and that the victims of her actions were vulnerable clients. The Court also noted that she has failed to make full restitution.

In mitigation, the board found Little had no prior discipline, made a full disclosure to the board of her misconduct, and cooperated in the disciplinary process.

“Disbarment is the presumptive sanction for an attorney’s misappropriation of client funds, although significant mitigating factors may weigh in favor of a lesser sanction,” the opinion stated. “Here, the board found no reason to deviate from the presumptive sanction, noting that Little had not yet made full restitution, she presented no evidence of a disorder that contributed to her misconduct, and she was ‘not contrite’ at her disciplinary hearing.”

Given the extent and duration of her actions, and that she has not made full restitution, the Court stated that permanent disbarment “is the only appropriate sanction in this case.”

2016-1838. Disciplinary Counsel v. Little, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-6871.

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.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.