Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Attorney Who Attempted to Cover Up Sex with Clients Suspended

A Chagrin Falls attorney who broke up with one client he had sex with and then started a sexual relationship with another client was suspended for two years with one year stayed by the Ohio Supreme Court today.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled to suspend Sean Porter with conditions, including that he schedule a mental health assessment with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) within 60 days. Porter argued before the Court that the proposed sanction was too harsh, maintaining the two women clients initiated the relationships and that both were consensual.

“Regardless of whether a client initiates or consents to sexual activity with the lawyer, it is the lawyer’s duty to ensure that the attorney-client relationship remains on a professional level,” the Court’s per curiam opinion stated.

Ohio’s rules governing the professional conduct of attorneys prohibit a lawyer from soliciting or engaging in sexual activity with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed before the attorney-client relationship.

Attorney Engages in Back-to-Back Client Relationships
In December 2018, a woman identified in court records as M.H. hired Porter to represent her in her divorce. Porter was employed by Barr, Jones & Associates. M.H. lived in California at the time and her three children lived with their father in Ohio. The divorce was contentious and concluded in May 2019. Porter continued to represent M.H. in several post-divorce matters.

By July 2019, Porter and M.H. began to exchange sexually suggestive text messages. In July, Porter filed a motion of contempt against M.H.’s former spouse, which included an affidavit purportedly signed by M.H. and notarized by Porter. Porter later admitted he signed M.H.’s name and fraudulently swore he observed her signing the document.

M.H. twice flew to Ohio from California in August and September to attend post-divorce hearings. After each hearing, she and Porter had sex at her hotel room. As M.H. was returning to California after the September trip, Porter broke up with her.

While Porter represented M.H., a woman identified as A.H. hired Porter to represent her in her divorce and for a domestic violence charge.

In October, A.H. invited Porter to dinner to celebrate a favorable ruling in her criminal case. Later that night the two engaged in sex. Over the following two weeks, they exchanged text messages in which the two agreed to keep their relationship a secret.

Firm Receives Complaint Following Breakup
On Oct. 15, 2019, M.H. informed the Barr Jones law firm of Porter’s improper conduct. When confronted by firm partners, Porter initially denied the allegations but later admitted his conduct. In an email with a partner that day, Porter agreed to have no further contact with M.H., withdraw from M.H.’s cases, reimburse M.H. for all the fees charged in the post-divorce matters, and self-report his ethical violations to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. The partners informed him that if he did not report the violation, they would.

On the same day as the confrontation, A.H. expressed concern to Porter about their relationship being revealed. When asked what would happen if she got pregnant, Porter responded, “[You have] nothing to worry about but we will work together to hide it.”

The next day, Porter notified the disciplinary counsel of his misconduct with M.H., but failed to mention that he engaged in similar misconduct with A.H. Although Barr Jones was unaware of Porter’s relationship with A.H., the firm removed Porter from her cases in late October based on his misconduct with M.H. The firm fired him in December.

Porter ended his relationship with A.H. three months later, and in April 2020, A.H. filed a grievance against him with disciplinary authorities.

In his response, Porter stated the inappropriate relationship began in November, after the firm removed him from A.H.’s case. He characterized her grievance as “frivolous” and stated that her claims of the relationship starting while they had an attorney-client relationship were “fraudulent.” At his disciplinary hearing, Porter admitted his response was a lie.

Lawyer Admitted Violations, Opposed Sanction
In November 2020, the disciplinary counsel filed a complaint against Porter with the Board of Professional Conduct. After a disciplinary hearing, the parties stipulated and the board ruled that Porter violated the rule against having sex with clients, and that he made a false statement to a court when he filed M.H.’s affidavit that he swore she signed. He admitted that he made a false statement during disciplinary proceedings when he alleged that A.H. lied about the timing of their relationship.

The board recommended that the Court suspend Porter for two years, with one year stayed with conditions. Porter objected to the length of the suspension, arguing the board did not properly assess other mitigating evidence that weighed in favor of a lesser sanction.

Among Porter’s contentions was that the board failed to consider his diagnosed mental disorders. A clinical counselor diagnosed Porter with clinical depression, anxiety, and an adjustment disorder. The counselor testified that the disorders contributed to his misconduct and that, with treatment, he could continue the competent, ethical, and professional practice of law.

The counselor admitted she first met with Porter in April 2021, a year after the second grievance was filed, and only 16 days prior to his disciplinary hearing. At the time of his hearing, he had completed four counseling sessions.

The Court ruled Porter did not meet the standard for having his mental disorder qualify as a mitigating factor because he had not achieved a required “sustained period of successful treatment.” While Porter asserted he had trouble obtaining care during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court noted he could not explain why he took so long to seek treatment, especially since he learned of M.H.’s allegations five months before pandemic shutdowns occurred.

The Court imposed several conditions to his stayed suspension, and possible reinstatement. In addition to seeking a mental health assessment from OLAP, he must comply with any treatment conditions that OLAP recommends. He also must comply with rules regarding the employment of a suspended attorney, not commit further misconduct, and pay for the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

To be reinstated to the practice of law, he must prove he met all OLAP requirements, receive an opinion from a qualified healthcare professional that he can ethically practice law, and prove he completed six hours of continuing legal education addressing ethical boundaries for professionals. If reinstated, he must cooperate with a monitoring attorney for two years. The monitoring attorney will preapprove all professional relationships with female clients and review all of Porter’s communications with female clients.

2021-0754. Disciplinary Counsel v. Porter, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-4352.

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