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Logan County Lawyer Reprimanded for Seeking to Represent Jailed Woman

The Ohio Supreme Court today publicly reprimanded a Logan County attorney who said she went to the local jail to visit a woman accused of murder who she did not know to advise her of her rights, but intended to have the woman allow her to be part of her defense team.

The Board of Professional Conduct recommended that Natalie J. Bahan of West Mansfield receive a fully stayed six-month suspension for violating a rule banning lawyers from making in-person contact to solicit employment when the lawyer is significantly motivated by financial gain. A divided Supreme Court found Bahan violated the solicitation rule.

Writing the Court’s lead opinion, Justice Melody J. Stewart stated that because the matter involved a single client who was not harmed, and Bahan had no prior disciplinary violations, a public reprimand was the appropriate sanction. Bahan was ordered to pay for the disciplinary proceedings and not to commit further misconduct.

Justices Judith L. French and Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Stewart’s opinion. Justice R. Patrick DeWine concurred in judgment only.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer dissented and would impose the board’s recommended stayed suspension.

Woman’s Murder Charge Draws Lawyer’s Attention
Bahan is a solo practitioner primarily practicing criminal defense, juvenile, and probate law. In March 2017, Rosalie Kennedy was arrested and jailed for the murder of her husband. Bahan did not know Kennedy but became interested in the case after learning of the arrest and seeing Kennedy’s photo on the internet. Bahan thought Kennedy might be a victim of domestic violence and that the murder arose from an attempt to protect herself.

Bahan contacted Marc Triplett, a Logan County criminal defense attorney who was on the court’s list of appointed counsel for murder cases. Bahan had worked with Triplett on prior felony cases, and she asked him what he thought of her visiting Kennedy in jail.

Triplett advised Bahan that he saw no problem of her visiting Kennedy for the purpose of assuring Kennedy’s rights were protected. Bahan visited Kennedy the next day and discussed with her the ability to afford a private lawyer. Bahan explained the court-appointed counsel process.

Kennedy told Bahan she was considering hiring Triplett and asked Bahan to contact Triplett. Bahan made a second visit to the jail where she presented Kennedy with a proposed fee agreement, which listed only her name as Kennedy’s lawyer and they discussed a legal strategy.

Indictment Leads to Further Representation Discussions
Kennedy was indicted for murder a week after her arrest. Bahan met with Kennedy’s daughters and examined the crime scene. She discussed legal fees with the women and requested a down payment for representation. They also discussed Kennedy’s access to bank accounts and credit cards, as well as the possibility of selling assets and livestock. Part of the questioning was to determine whether Kennedy was eligible for a court-appointed lawyer or if she had the means to hire a private attorney.

When Bahan contacted Triplett as Kennedy requested, Triplett said he could not represent the woman. Bahan then filed a notice of appearance in Kennedy’s case and submitted other procedural motions to the court.

Bahan visited Kennedy a third time in jail, where Kennedy told her she learned Triplett could not represent her, and that she hired another lawyer.

Payment Sought for Legal Services
Once Bahan confirmed another lawyer was representing Kennedy, she sent a text to the woman’s daughters asking to be paid $1,400 for her work, which included a $300 charge for the first jail visit, and $400 for the second. Kennedy did not pay the bill, and Bahan did not pursue payment.

The Columbus Bar Association received a complaint about Bahan’s actions. Although the identity of the person who contacted the bar association was not revealed, Bahan was told it was neither Kennedy nor the lawyer she hired.

The bar association investigated the matter and recommended the Board of Professional Conduct charge Bahan with three violations, including the improper in-person solicitation. The bar association recommended she also be charged with engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and in conduct that adversely reflected on her fitness to practice law.

Lawyer Maintains She Sought Case for Experience
At a board disciplinary hearing, Bahan maintained she did not violate the professional conduct rules because her primary motive for visiting Kennedy was not for financial gain, but to assure Kennedy knew her rights. She also asserted that she wanted to gain murder trial experience.

The board found that Bahan only violated the in-person solicitation rule, and based on her absence of any prior disciplinary violations, evidence of her good character, cooperation with the proceedings, and the fact that Kennedy was not harmed by her actions, the board proposed a six-month fully stayed suspension. Bahan argued that she did not violate the rule, and if she did, a reprimand is all that was warranted.

Court Finds Rule Violation
Justice Stewart explained the rule’s objective is to prevent harmful attorney solicitation. Because lawyers are trained to be persuasive, there is the potential for overreach and undue influence in an attorney’s in-person solicitation, especially when the person is under adverse circumstances, such as being in jail.  The rule does not prohibit attorneys from giving unrequested in-person legal advice to a person under adverse circumstances, but prohibits attorneys from accepting employment for a fee as a result of that legal advice.

 Bahan expressed desire to be compensated for the time she spent, and sending a bill for her services indicated she violated the rule, the lead opinion stated.

Bahan testified that she only sent the bill because Kennedy requested it, and she did not pursue it. That indicated she did not violate the rule, she asserted. The Court wrote that Bahan “either misunderstands the rule or that she lost sight of her ethical duty.” The rule places a duty on attorneys to refrain from in-person solicitation, and a violation does not turn on whether the prospective client was harmed by the effort, the Court concluded.

2019-0219. Columbus Bar Assn. v. Bahan, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-434.

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