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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Disbars Attorney Who Sexually Abused Students as Teacher

The Ohio Supreme Court today disbarred a former Lake County school teacher-turned-lawyer who is serving almost 30 years in prison for criminal convictions based on coercing two of his teenage high school students to have sexual contact with him.

By a 4-3 vote, the Supreme Court disbarred Anthony Polizzi Jr., who was convicted of his crimes almost a decade after they occurred. In a per curiam opinion, the Court majority stated permanent disbarment was “necessary to maintain public confidence in the legal profession and to preserve the integrity of the profession.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, and Jennifer Brunner joined the opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote that Polizzi’s misconduct involved convictions for sex offenses that Polizzi committed before he became an attorney, and the Court’s precedent led him to conclude an indefinite suspension was the appropriate sanction.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice Donnelly’s dissent.

Crimes Occurred While Teaching
Polizzi began teaching at Cornerstone Christian Academy in Willoughby Hills in 2006. In April 2008, he began having illegal sexual contact with a female Cornerstone student, who was 17 or 18 at the time. He began having sexual contact with another student, who was in his class when she was in the 11th and 12th grades, between January and February 2010.

Driving separately, Polizzi would meet the girls at a park near the school. In 2010, someone saw Polizzi and one of the girls drive back to school — their cars in close proximity — and reported this observation to the school superintendent. Polizzi admitted to the superintendent that he met with the girl at the park, and the superintendent informed Polizzi that his contract with Cornerstone would not be renewed.

After leaving Cornerstone, Polizzi attended the University of Akron School of Law and began working for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. He did not disclose his sexual contact with the girls. After passing the bar exam, he worked for a private law firm for three years.

Criminal Charges Pursued
In July 2017, a Lake County grand jury indicted Polizzi on one count of gross sexual imposition and 24 counts of sexual battery for conduct that allegedly occurred with the student in 2010. A second indictment, issued in December 2017, charged Polizzi with 33 counts of gross sexual imposition, 22 counts of sexual battery, and one count of attempted sexual battery for conduct that allegedly occurred with the other student in 2007 and 2008.

In 2018, Polizzi pleaded guilty to eight counts of gross sexual imposition and sexual battery. He was originally sentenced to 33 years in prison, but after an appeal the sentence was reduced to 29 years and 10 months.

In 2019, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against Polizzi with the Board of Professional Conduct, seeking his disbarment. The parties stipulated to two ethical violations — that Polizzi’s illegal conduct adversely reflected on his honesty and trustworthiness and adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law.

The board recommended that the Court disbar Polizzi. But Polizzi, who was 42 years old at the time of his disciplinary hearing, asked the Court to indefinitely suspend him with the hope of regaining the ability to practice law again once he completes his prison sentence.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors Examined
When considering the sanction in a disciplinary case, the Court considers aggravating circumstances that could increase the penalty and mitigating factors that could lead to a lesser sanction.

The parties agreed that Polizzi acted with a dishonest or selfish motive, engaged in a pattern of misconduct, committed multiple offenses, and caused harm to vulnerable victims. The board also found that Polizzi failed to accept responsibility for his actions, which Polizzi disputed.

The Court also noted that Polizzi has no prior disciplinary record, fully cooperated in the disciplinary proceeding, but has had other sanctions imposed for his misconduct — namely his criminal convictions and sentence and the loss of his teaching license.

The opinion noted the board identified factors that weighed in favor of disbarment. The board found Polizzi violated his position of trust and authority as a teacher “by committing abhorrent and illegal sexual offenses against the minor students who had been entrusted to his care.”

The board reported that even after his sexual crimes ended, Polizzi continued to abuse both of his victims by engaging in inappropriate, and in at least one instance, obscene, communications with them. The board also concluded that Polizzi tried to shame his victims by characterizing their descriptions of his criminal conduct as “exaggerations” and stating that he wanted them to experience misery for the harm they had caused him by reporting his crimes.

Supreme Court Considers Similar Cases
Polizzi objected to the board’s findings, arguing the board should have considered his expressed remorse and acceptance of responsibility, and several other facts, and proposed an indefinite suspension. Polizzi asserted while the Court has disbarred other lawyers convicted of sex crimes, his offenses are similar to those given to attorneys who received indefinite suspensions.

The Court’s opinion explained the most significant distinction between attorneys receiving indefinite suspension and those who were disbarred is that the disbarred attorneys — like Polizzi — “were either convicted of gross sexual imposition or used force, the threat of force, or extreme forms of coercion to compel their victims to submit to their sexual demands.”

The Court also noted that while the crimes may have occurred before Polizzi was an attorney, had he fully disclosed the reason for his firing by Cornerstone, he almost certainly would not been allowed to take the bar exam and become an Ohio lawyer. The Court also noted as an attorney, he did not demonstrate he had taken accountability for his misconduct.

“By pleading guilty to two counts of gross sexual imposition, he admitted that he had purposely compelled both of his victims to submit to sexual contact by force or threat of force. Yet at his sentencing hearing, Polizzi contradicted those facts when he claimed that the sexual contact had been completely consensual,” the opinion stated.

Disbarment Not Compelled by Court Precedent or Principles, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly wrote that the Court imposed the ultimate form of discipline, but not because of anything Polizzi did as an attorney. Because Polizzi’s criminal conduct occurred before he became a lawyer, Justice Donnelly stated the issue is whether that misconduct makes him “wholly unfit to ever again function as an attorney.”

“To be absolutely clear, when it is discovered that an attorney has committed criminal acts, whether the conduct occurs after bar admission or before, swift and severe consequences are necessary,” the dissent stated.

Because the Court’s primary objective in disciplinary proceedings is to protect the public through sanctions to attorneys that are consistent with those imposed in similar cases, the discipline imposed should be both purposeful and proportionate, Justice Donnelly wrote.

The dissent noted the Court has imposed indefinite suspensions for reprehensible criminal acts, including predatory sexual acts involving children. Additionally, the only case in which the Court was directed to consider where discipline was imposed for criminal conduct that occurred prior to the lawyer’s admission to the practice of law, the Court indefinitely suspended the lawyer.

2020-0740. Disciplinary Counsel v. Polizzi, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-1136.

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