Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Cleveland Woman Fined for the Unauthorized Practice of Law

The Ohio Supreme Court today levied a $5,000 fine against a woman for the unauthorized practice of law because she helped a friend settle an auto accident claim and tried to help him conceal the settlement proceeds from a bankruptcy court.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court ruled Lander Hennessey of Cleveland engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when she signed an agreement to settle an auto accident insurance claim for a friend and accepted 25% of the undisclosed amount of the settlement. Hennessey has never been licensed to practice law, and told the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association that her friend had two other lawyers working on matters, and the friend intentionally did not want them involved in settling his 2016 accident claim.

After initially responding to two letters from the bar association in 2018, Hennessey stopped cooperating in the matter. The bar association filed a complaint against Hennessey in 2019 and without her participation, the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law issued a default judgment, finding she committed the unauthorized practice of law and recommending the Court fine her $5,000.

Friend Explains Arrangement
In response to the bar association’s inquiry, Hennessey explained that her friend, identified by the Court as T.M., hired her to represent him in the settlement of an auto accident in which he was injured. T.M. granted Hennessey power of attorney and agreed to pay 25% of the settlement proceeds if Hennessey provides services such as “telephone calls, messenger, driver, postage, photos, copies, mileage, investigations, communications, negotiations.” Hennessy admitted attending to the matters regarding the claim and accepting 25% of the settlement, but denied the actions constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

Hennessey also stated that T.M. had two other lawyers — one working to resolve claims from an earlier auto accident and another working on a bankruptcy proceeding. She wrote to the bar association that her friend did not want the other lawyers to know about the accident. She alleged T.M. did not want the bankruptcy court to find out about the settlement and wanted to claim he never received it.

The Court stated in its opinion it was identifying T.M. by initials because Hennessy suggested in her response to the bar association that T.M. may have committed a crime, but the Court could find no evidence suggesting he was charged with an offense.

Hennessey acknowledged that T.M. received 75% of the settlement and she received 25%. The bankruptcy court learned about it, and Hennessey said T.M. became upset that the bankruptcy court ordered him to turn over the settlement funds.

Board Considers Acts Illegal, Harmful
The board reported that the unauthorized practice of law includes rendering legal services for another when the person is not authorized to do so under the rules governing the practice of law in Ohio. Citing several previous Ohio Supreme Court decisions, the board noted that it has held “one who purports to negotiate legal claims on behalf of another and advises persons on their legal rights and the terms and conditions of settlement engages in the practice of law.”

The board noted its recommended sanction to the Court is based on several factors, including the degree of Hennessey’s cooperation, the number of times she engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, and the harm caused by the violations.

The board noted Hennessey stopped cooperating after responding to two bar association letters in January and the letters indicated T.M. sought her representation to avoid disclosing the accident to his other lawyers and the bankruptcy court.

“And if that is true, by agreeing to represent T.M., Hennessey effectively agreed to participate in an attempt to defraud the bankruptcy court,” the Court’s opinion stated.

Noting that the bankruptcy court ultimately learned of the settlement, the Supreme Court determined the bankruptcy court must have expended some resources to uncover the attempted fraud. The Court agreed that a $5,000 civil penalty and an order preventing Hennessey from further engaging in the unauthorized practice of law was the appropriate sanction.

2020-0986. Cleveland Metro. Bar Assn. v. Hennessey, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-667.

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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