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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Columbus Attorney Suspended for Violating Rules While on Probation

The Ohio Supreme Court today indefinitely suspended a Columbus attorney whose long disciplinary record includes dozens of violations of the rules governing the conduct of Ohio attorneys.

The Supreme Court voted 4-3 to suspend Lawrence E. Winkfield, who is facing his fourth disciplinary sanction since 1996, including a prior indefinite suspension that lasted about eight years. The Board of Professional Conduct recommended a two-year, partially stayed suspension. However, in a per curiam opinion, the Court majority wrote that an indefinite suspension was more appropriate for the rule violations that occurred in three client matters and for failing to properly manage his client trust account.

Justices Judith L. French, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart joined the majority opinion.

In separate dissenting opinions, Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer stated that Winkfield should be disbarred. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

Attorney Violated Rules While on Probation
The Columbus Bar Association charged Winkfield in April 2018 with rule violations relating to disputes with clients that began in 2015. Winkfield was under Supreme Court-ordered monitored probation at the time of the violations.

Winkfield’s disciplinary sanctions date back to 1996 when the Court found he failed to promptly return a client’s money and imposed a fully stayed one-year suspension. In 2001, he was found to have committed multiple rule violations while handling a client matter, and did not cooperate with a separate disciplinary investigation. The Court suspended him for two years, with the second year stayed with conditions.

Winkfield was indefinitely suspended in 2006 for misconduct in eight client matters and for continuing to practice law in 2001 after the Court suspended him. About eight years later, in 2014, he was reinstated to practice law with conditions that he serve a three-year period of monitored probation and comply with treatment recommendations from his mental-health practitioners.

In 2016, the Court held Winkfield in contempt for violating his probation requirements and imposed two more years of monitored probation.

Clients Complain about Representation
In 2015, Lawrence Bailey hired Winkfield to assist him in recovering money for medical bills related to an injury he suffered at a motel. Winkfield advised Bailey that he would send a demand letter to the motel’s insurer, but if the matter could not be settled, Bailey would have to pay Winkfield for the court costs to file a lawsuit.

Bailey then tried to contact Winkfield repeatedly, but Winkfield did not respond, and never filed a lawsuit on Bailey’s behalf. Bailey then filed a grievance against Winkfield with the local bar association.

The board found Winkfield’s lack of activity on the case for many months violated the rules requiring lawyers to act with diligence on client matters and that they keep clients reasonably informed about the status of their cases.

Also in 2015, Richard Eisenhart hired Winkfield to assist him with recovering money from a contractor that failed to complete work on Eisenhart’s home. Winkfield agreed to represent Eisenhart on a contingency basis, but later contacted Eisenhart stating that the work “far exceeded the flat fee originally quoted.” He required Eisenhart to pay a $450 fee, of which Eisenhart paid $410. While Winkfield attempted to recover some money for Eisenhart, he never filed a lawsuit on his behalf, and Eisenhart filed a grievance.

Winkfield told the board that he altered the original contingency-fee agreement into a “modified” contingency-fee agreement. The board found Winkfield wavered between suggesting he had a flat-fee agreement and a contingency agreement with Eisenhart. The board concluded that if Winkfield was “unable to clearly state what the fee arrangement was, his client cannot be expected to know.”

The board ruled Winkfield failed to communicate the nature and scope of his work and the fee the client could be expected to pay, and that he needed to have a contingency-fee agreement signed by his client.

Winkfield also failed to properly communicate the basis or rate of his fee while representing a man who hired him in 2016 to assist in a pending child-custody case. Winkfield initially quoted Michael Taylor a $500 flat fee for representation, and later requested an additional $1,000 from Taylor, stating he spent an extensive amount of time on his case.

Winkfield stated he told Taylor the $500 was a “minimum retainer” and that he would be charging $200 an hour. The board found Winkfield was “confused as to the nature of the fee arrangement with Taylor,” and when given time to produce a copy of the written fee agreement, Winkfield failed to locate the document.

The board also cited Winkfield for failing to properly maintain and document his client trust account.

Court Elevates Sanction
The board examined Winkfield’s conduct and the sanctions imposed on other attorneys with similar disciplinary records, and concluded that he should receive a two-year suspension with 18 months stayed with conditions.

The majority opinion stated that Winkfield’s lengthy disciplinary record includes “serious ethical violations, including continuing to practice in violation of a prior suspension order.” The Court also noted that instead of accepting responsibility for his misconduct, he attempted to shift the blame on the Columbus Bar Association and the attorney who agreed to monitor his probation.

“The circumstances require an indefinite suspension from the practice of law,” the opinion stated.

The Court required Winkfield to pay Eisenhart $278 in restitution within 60 days, and conditioned his reinstatement on proof that he passed the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. If reinstated, he must serve two more years of monitored probation.

Dissents Seek Disbarment
In her dissent, Justice Kennedy wrote that Winkfield “continues to harm the unknowing public.” Because the Court has a “solemn obligation to protect the public” and she has “no confidence that any sanction that allows Winkfield to practice law will protect the public,” she would disbar Winkfield.

She described Winkfield’s three previous substantive disciplinary actions, one of which resulted in an indefinite suspension, and his current misconduct, which occurred while serving monitored probation, and concluded that the Court’s precedent supported Winkfield’s disbarment.

“This court has found that attorneys who have an extensive history of misconduct are no longer fit to practice law,” she wrote.

‘Enough Is Enough,’ Dissent Stated
Justice Fischer in his dissent wrote that while he believes in giving people second chances whenever possible, he was compelled in this case to say, “‘Enough is enough.’”

“Across these many cases,” Justice Fischer wrote, “Winkfield has a disciplinary record of 68 rule violations, plus two probation-condition violations, and one finding of contempt.”

Given Winkfield’s long history of ethical violations and the court’s responsibility to police the legal profession, he stated that Winkfield should be disbarred.

2019-0221. Columbus Bar Assn. v Winkfield, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4532.

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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