Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Two Attorneys Sanctioned for Fee-Related Misconduct

The Ohio Supreme Court today sanctioned two attorneys for fee-related misconduct and other violations of the rules governing Ohio attorneys.

In separate, unanimous per curiam opinions:

  • Robert L. Johnson of McDonald was indefinitely suspended.
  • Patricia A. Pickrel of Centerville was suspended for two years, with one year stayed on conditions. (Justice Patrick F. Fischer did not participate in Pickrel’s case.)

Two Bar Associations Complain About Lawrence
In March 2014, Johnson received an interim suspension because of his failure to respond to a disciplinary complaint filed by the Lorain County Bar Association. Johnson obtained a lawyer and was engaged in Board of Professional Conduct proceedings when the Trumbull County Bar Association filed a separate set of charges against him. The board consolidated the two matters, which involve multiple allegations of misconduct involving multiple clients.

One of the charges investigated by the Lorain County Bar Association stemmed from a 2012 notification by Chase Bank that Johnson’s client trust account contained insufficient funds to cover a $5,000 check he wrote to attorney Michael J. Godles. Godles signed a contingent-fee contract to represent Alice Stevanus in a personal injury lawsuit. Godles later asked Johnson, who was not a member of the same law firm, to serve as co-counsel, but violated rules by not obtaining Stevanus’s written consent to Johnson’s representation and not disclosing their fee-sharing arrangement. Johnson also did not notify Stevanus that he did not carry professional-liability insurance.

The attorneys settled Stevanus’s claim for $65,000 and deposited the funds in Johnson’s client trust account, of which Johnson indicated he sent $7,500 to Stevanus, allotted $21,500 for attorney fees, and retained a $36,000 account balance. Johnson actually sent $37,500 to Godles in three checks, and while he claimed the account had a $36,000 balance, a $5,000 check he sent to Godles was twice returned because the bank had placed a hold on the account.

Johnson testified he received $7,500 for his services, sent Stevanus $7,500 and that the $37,500 he had sent to Godles was to cover Godles’ fee, and to pay Stevanus’s outstanding medical bills. However, Johnson failed to account for the remaining $12,500, and the professional conduct board found he either failed to maintain or refused to produce receipts, invoices, ledgers, or any other material documenting his handling of Stevanus’s funds.

The board found he violated several rules in the matter, including failing to maintain certain records regarding client funds and failing to promptly deliver funds to a client. The board also found several instances where Johnson accepted fees from clients and failed to perform the promised services.

“The board recommends that we indefinitely suspend Johnson from the practice of law with no credit for the time served under his interim default suspension based, in part, on findings that he neglected 11 separate client matters and that he failed to reasonably communicate with at least one client, maintain records regarding client funds in his possession, refund unearned fees on the termination of his representation, and cooperate in no fewer than 14 disciplinary investigations,” the opinion stated.

Board Considers Johnson’s 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 Johnson acted with a dishonest and selfish motive, engaged in a pattern of misconduct that involved multiple offenses, initially failed to cooperate in the disciplinary process, harmed multiple clients, and failed to make restitution, noting he owes about $13,000 to 15 former clients.

The board also found Johnson had no prior disciplinary record, made full disclosure to the board, and cooperated with the disciplinary process once he retained a lawyer.

In addition to the suspension, the Court ordered him to pay restitution to his clients, and in order to be reinstated, he will have to submit to a mental-health evaluation by the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP), enter into an OLAP contract, and comply with all recommendations from OLAP and his treating professionals.

2014-0136 and 2014-1403. Lorain Cty. Bar Ass. v. Johnson, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-6869.

Pickrel Overstates Hours
Pickrel has been registered as an inactive attorney since 2005, and in 2016 the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel alleged she violated several professional conduct rules by overbilling a law firm for more than $87,000 for nonattorney, document-review services.

In 2005, Pickrel became an independent contractor for the Ulmer & Berne law firm performing document review services for the Cincinnati office. In 2012, she started working on a large project in which she was paid $65 per hour. The arrangement required she perform her work on the firm’s secured website and it was only possible to do the work while logged on.

Twice a month Pickrel would report via email the amount of time she worked in a two-week period and that figure was logged into a separate firm system used to generate her payment. From 2012 to 2015 she collected $125,000 working on the project.

In December 2015, a firm associate discovered a discrepancy between the number of hours Pickrel reported for the last two weeks of November and the hours she was logged onto the secure website. When notified, Pickrel alleged the application she used to track her hours was “all screwed up” and her time may have been inaccurate for the past month.

The firm conducted an audit and found Pickrel overbilled the firm by more than $87,000 during a four-year period, with excess billing accounting for up to 89 percent of her annual compensation. When contacted by the firm partner in charge of the project, Pickrel stated she was a bad record keeper and had computer trouble, but eventually admitted to her misconduct. She requested an opportunity to reimburse the company and paid $87,260 in 2016.

The board found she violated the rules by engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. The opinion stated that while Pickrel was not registered as an active attorney, the conduct rules still apply.

The board found Pickrel acted with a dishonest or selfish motive, engaged in a pattern of misconduct, and committed multiple offenses. It also found she had no prior disciplinary record, made timely restitution, fully disclosed her behavior to the board, cooperated in the disciplinary process, and voluntarily refrained from the practice of law.

Pickrel also established she had a mental-health disorder, submitting evidence that she was diagnosed with dysthymia in 2016, and had been treating the disorder with a therapist. The therapist has certified that Pickrel is able to return to the competent, ethical, professional practice of law.

“Having considered Pickrel’s lengthy pattern of dishonest and deceitful billing practices, the applicable mitigating factors, including her contributing mental disorder and her prompt payment of full restitution, and the sanctions we have imposed for comparable misconduct, we agree that a two-year suspension with one year stayed on the conditions recommended by the board is the appropriate sanction in this case,” the Court wrote.

The Court stayed the second year of her suspension on the condition that she continue to participate in counseling, remain in compliance with her OLAP contract, and not engage in further misconduct. If she is reinstated to the active practice of law, she must serve a two-year period of monitored probation.

2017-0225. Disciplinary Counsel v. Pickrel, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-6872.

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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