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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Woman with Long History of Large Debt and Legal Entanglements Can Take Bar Exam in 2020

The Ohio Supreme Court today allowed a 2019 law school graduate who filed dozens of civil proceedings — including some in which she engaged in the unauthorized practice of law — and with husband accumulated nearly $900,000 in student loan debt to take the July 2020 bar exam.

Cynthia M. Rodgers of Dresden, who was 59 years old when she applied to take the 2019 bar exam, successfully challenged a recommendation by the Supreme Court’s Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness, which found she lacked the proper character to practice law in Ohio and suggested she not be permitted to take the bar exam until July 2024. In a per curiam opinion, the Court noted that since her enrollment in law school, Rodgers has learned to exercise good judgment, developed a healthy respect for the legal process, and now possesses the “character, fitness, and moral qualifications” to practice law.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart joined the majority opinion. Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and R. Patrick DeWine concurred in judgment only.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer expressed particular concern over Rodgers’ student loan debts, and wrote that Rodgers has a pattern of neglecting financial responsibilities, which makes her ability to protect her legal client’s funds suspect.

County Bar Approves, State Board Rejects Graduate’s Application
Two members of the Muskingum County Bar Association interviewed Rodgers in July 2017 and recommended that her character and fitness be approved. The character and fitness board invoked its own authority to independently investigate Rodgers, and after a hearing, recommended the Court deny her application to take the bar exam after law school graduation, but allow her to reapply for the July 2024 exam.

Rodgers objected to the board’s recommendation and explained to the Court the circumstances behind her financial issues and the lawsuits she filed pro se or with the assistance of attorneys.

Court Examines Record
The Court noted its rules allow for the disapproval of those seeking to practice law in Ohio who have a record of “significant deficiency” of honesty, trustworthiness, diligence, or reliability. Some of the factors that demonstrate deficiencies include engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, abusing the legal process, and neglecting financial responsibilities. The opinion noted when an applicant has prior issues with problematic behavior, the Court considers the recency and seriousness of the conduct; the factors leading to the conduct; evidence of any rehabilitation of the applicant; and the applicant’s candor during the admissions process.

Rodgers maintained that she is paying on all her debts with the exception of one disputed debt. The board noted that she has failed to pay past debts and “knowingly incurred a substantial amount of student-loan debt that she will probably never be able to fully pay.” Rodgers also defaulted on several consumer loan debts, but the records of the debts no longer appear on her credit report because of the age of the debt and likelihood the companies gave up on collection efforts.

The board cited the Court’s 2011 In re Application of Griffin decision as a reason for recommending denying Rodgers’ application. In Griffin, the applicant had $170,000 in student loan debt and $16,500 in unpaid credit card debt. Today’s opinion noted that in Griffin, the applicant had no plan or ability to pay the debts, and even after disapproving the application, the Court allowed the graduate to reapply for the exam one year later than he intended to take it.

Rodgers explained that after she became disabled in 2001, she and her husband consolidated their student loans and entered into a 25-year repayment plan. Under that plan, the couple was to pay a percentage of their income above $25,000 per year for 25 years, and any amount remaining unpaid would be forgiven. At the time of the board hearing, she was not required to make any payment because their income was less than $25,000. The couple has six more years before the debt will be forgiven.

Because the most recent of her consumer debt issues occurred more than 15 years ago and she is current with the terms of her student loan repayment agreement, the Court disagreed with the board’s assessment that Rodgers has neglected her financial responsibilities.

Litigation History Rooted in Personal Tragedy and Financial Hardship
The Court noted that Rodgers has been involved in many administrative and legal proceedings, but the record indicated most of it was “rooted in personal tragedy and financial hardships and was genuinely intended to right wrongs — some actual and some perceived — rather than to harm or annoy others.”

The opinion noted the most problematic of Rodgers’ cases were the nearly 20 actions between 2002 and 2010 dealing with her role as administrator of her father’s probate estate. Many of the legal proceedings regarded a contentious ownership dispute with her uncle over a family farm.

The Court noted it has been nearly 10 years since she filed her last claim related to her father’s estate, and she admitted she was too emotionally involved and did not know what she was doing, but felt “something needed to be done” to correct injustices. She said she filed many of the cases herself because she could not afford an attorney.

Since attending law school, Rodgers admits to the mistakes she made with litigation in the past. The opinion noted she practiced law as an intern through the Capital University Law School Clinic and Southeastern Ohio Legal Aid, where her supervisors reported that she performed well.

While in law school she filed two lawsuits , one a successful small claims suit regarding a towed car, and another claim for unpaid paralegal wages, which was settled. The Court stated that Rodgers shows she has the ability to help others and can draw on her past experiences to benefit her future clients.

The Court approved her character and fitness application and permitted her to sit for the July 2020 bar exam as long as she satisfies the remaining registration requirements.

Dissent Would Delay Reapplication
In his dissent, Justice Fischer wrote that he would support the board’s recommendation to allow Rodgers to reapply in 2024 and give her more of an opportunity to address her “pattern of financial neglect.”

He wrote that a lawyer’s ability to competently handle issues related to a client’s finances is of paramount importance and noted the Court has stated that mishandling of client’s funds “encompasses an area of the gravest concern” when reviewing attorney misconduct. He wrote that Rodgers failed to show she is fit to handle either her own financial obligations or those of potential clients.

Justice Fischer stated he shared the board’s concerns about Rodgers’ student loan debt and her acknowledged lack of diligence in keeping track of her debt obligations. He wrote that her acknowledgement that she will never be able to repay the loans “indicates that she believes that those debts are not her problem and that she is relying on someone else (most likely, in this case, taxpayers) to take care of her debts for her.”

“If this is how she handles her own financial responsibilities, how will she handle her clients’ financial issues?” the dissent stated.

2019-1094. In re Application of Rodgers, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-770.

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