Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Assisting Inmate’s Attempt to Oust Prosecutor Brings UPL Charge

A Newark woman committed the unauthorized practice of law when she offered legal advice and assistance to an Ohio prison inmate on a quest to have the Licking County prosecutor removed from office, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a per curiam opinion, a Supreme Court majority ruled that Karen Beem’s attempts in 2014 to help Charles McCoy pursue his prosecutorial-misconduct claims against the county prosecutor constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

While the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law concluded that Beem, who is not a lawyer, committed an “egregious instance” of the unauthorized practice of law that warranted a $10,000 civil penalty, the Court fined Beem $5,000 and ordered her not to commit further acts that would constitute the unauthorized practice of law.

The Court majority stated the reduced penalty was justified for several reasons, including that Beem was not paid for her advice and counsel, and that McCoy did not appear to suffer any harm from her actions. The Court noted Beem’s conduct “undoubtedly created unnecessary work and wasted valuable prosecutorial and judicial resources.”

Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Michael J. Donnelly, and Jennifer Brunner joined the opinion. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in the opinion, but stated they would impose the recommended $10,000 penalty. Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in judgment only.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in part and dissented in part. The board found Beem’s actions fell into four categories that were the unauthorized practice of law. Justice Kennedy wrote that Beem only violated the rules in one of the four instances, and should not be fined.

Shared Discontent with Prosecutor
McCoy, an inmate at the London Correctional Institution, initiated legal actions pro se to oust the prosecutor by filing a prosecutorial-misconduct lawsuit against the official in Licking County Common Pleas Court.

While searching the Ohio Supreme Court docket, Beem noticed McCoy had filed several cases regarding events in Licking County. Beem began to communicate to McCoy through prison-authorized email, videoconferences, and other means.

Beem, who believed the prosecutors had helped her two siblings deprive her of inheritance and orchestrated the prosecution of harassment charges against her, offered to help McCoy in his case against the prosecutor. She offered him information about the prosecutor that she obtained through public records.

Pair Plan Legal Strategy
From May to August 2014, Beem and McCoy communicated regularly about the case. Beem performed legal research on McCoy’s behalf and transmitted materials to him along with monitoring his case through the online docket. She also gave McCoy advice regarding his rights, which legal arguments he should make and when he should make them, and which evidence he should submit to court.

Although she was not part of the lawsuit, Beem submitted “documentation in support of affidavit of Kimberly R. Beem” and written documentation in support of McCoy, none of which McCoy had reviewed.

She filed additional documents with the common pleas court, noting she was a “layperson” acting on McCoy’s behalf. The trial judge rejected her submissions and stated he was notifying the unauthorized practice of law board about her conduct.

Even after the judge raised concerns about her conduct, Beem continued to assist McCoy, including trying to have the judge disqualified from the case. She told McCoy that if the judge had to recuse
himself, she believed the appointment of a Franklin County judge would result in the best outcome of the lawsuit.

Supreme Court Evaluated Conduct
In 2017, the Ohio State Bar Association submitted a complaint to the board about Beem. Beem acknowledged that she aided McCoy, but disputed that her assistance constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

The Court’s opinion noted that the unauthorized practice of law is not only representing to others that one is authorized to practice law in Ohio, but also “rendering of legal services for another.” The preparation of pleadings and other papers for court proceedings and offering legal advice and counsel is considered the rendering of legal services, the opinion stated.

The Court determined Beem engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in four ways: preparing and filing documents; filing a motion to authorize McCoy to participate in depositions through videoconference from the prison; providing him advice about how and when to argue for his right to participate in the depositions; and providing legal advice to McCoy’s family regarding depositions.

Although she disputed that she was practicing law, Beem cooperated with the bar association’s investigation and produced copies of her communications with McCoy. She also represented that she stopped engaging in such conduct, and the board found no evidence that she continued such practices after her involvement with McCoy’s case.

The opinion stated that Beem engaged in several instances of the unauthorized practice of law over the course of several months, but her actions were confined to one legal matter. The Court determined that her actions collectively constituted a single offense of the unauthorized practice of law. The Court imposed the fine and ordered Beem to pay the costs of the proceedings.

Exercise of Professional Judgment Limited Offenses 
In her opinion, Justice Kennedy sided with the majority in finding that Beem engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when she exercised her professional judgment to advise McCoy on the timing of his filings to disqualify the trial judge. However, she wrote the other charges do not constitute the unauthorized practice of law.

Citing her concurring opinion to this month’s Disciplinary Counsel v. Deters decision, she noted that the focus on whether a layperson is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law should be on whether the person exercised professional judgment in giving the legal advice. Professional judgment is at the core of practicing law, and exercising professional judgment is an art that “requires the abstract understanding of legal principles and a refined skill for their concrete application,” she wrote.

She agreed with the majority that Beem engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when she exercised her professional judgment to advise McCoy on the timing of his filings to disqualify the trial judge. She stated that Beem used her “knowledge of the law to provide a course of action to McCoy to address his specific legal issue of judicial disqualification.”

However, she wrote the other charges do not constitute the unauthorized practice of law because Beem did not exercise professional judgment in those instances. She argued that Beem’s presentation of legal information she acquired about McCoy’s case did not require professional legal judgment. The concurring and dissenting opinion stated that sanctioning Beem for preparing and filing documentation McCoy knew and approved of “guts the public policies supporting the prohibition of the unauthorized practice of law.”

Beem’s involvement in the motion to authorize McCoy to participate in depositions also did not require advanced legal knowledge; rather, Beem “merely provided clerical assistance that required nothing more than ordinary intelligence,” she stated. And she argued that Beem’s conduct in providing assistance to McCoy’s family on common, everyday matters did not morph into the unauthorized practice of law merely because a legal matter was involved.

She noted the Court has stated the purpose of preventing the unauthorized practice of law is “protecting the public from incompetence, divided loyalties, and other attendant evils that are often associated with unskilled representation.” She concluded by stating that the “majority was simply making it difficult for an incarcerated individual to pursue a claim.”

She concluded that Beem’s conduct was not particularly egregious and that there was no evidence she received compensation or that McCoy was harmed. Because a civil fine was not imposed in similar situations, she would not impose a fine.

2020-1580. Ohio State Bar Assn. v. Beem, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-2821.

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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