Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Attorney Suspended for Using Client Settlement Funds for Own Purposes

The Supreme Court of Ohio today suspended an Akron attorney for two years, with 18 months stayed, for failing to pay the bills of his personal-injury case clients and diverting some of their settlement funds for his own personal use.

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court found that over a four-year period Theodore F. Scribner violated multiple professional conduct rules when handling settlement funds belonging to nine clients and impermissibly loaning money to another client. During that time, Scribner withdrew over $73,000 in cash from his client trust account that could not be connected to particular clients due to his poor recordkeeping.

The Court noted that Scribner admitted taking the money “during a period of financial strain” and that he used the funds belonging to his clients “for his own personal or business purposes or to reimburse funds that he had previously misappropriated from other clients.”

Scribner will have to meet certain conditions to be reinstated to the practice of law, and upon reinstatement, he will be required to serve one year of monitored probation focused on the management of his law office and client trust account.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, Jennifer Brunner, and Joseph T. Deters joined the majority opinion.

In a separate opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote that Scribner appeared to be operating “some sort of Ponzi scheme” by paying off some of his client’s expenses, while using the remainder for his own use or to reimburse previous clients. Justice Fischer maintained that Scribner should be suspended for two years, with one year stayed, and serve two years of monitored probation should he be reinstated.

Client Bills Go Unpaid as Attorney Moved Money
Scribner is a solo practitioner who maintains a client trust account and a separate operating account for his business use. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel began to investigate concerns raised about Scribner’s poor management practices regarding the accounting of the money he received from settling personal injury cases for clients.

In one case, Scribner agreed to hold $454 of a client’s settlement to pay an ambulance bill, but used the funds to pay himself for other work that he had performed for the client. He told two clients that he held $785 and $256 respectively from their settlements to pay various case-related expenses, but instead kept their money for his personal use.

After the disciplinary counsel initiated the investigation, Scribner began to pay his clients’ outstanding bills and paid restitution to the clients whose money he took.

In August 2022, the disciplinary counsel filed a complaint against Scribner with the Board of Professional Conduct. The parties stipulated that Scribner violated several ethics rules, including one that required him to promptly deliver funds that his clients were entitled to receive and another that prohibited him from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

Supreme Court Considered Appropriate Sanction
The majority opinion noted that Scribner admitted he engaged in a pattern of misconduct and committed multiple offenses that delayed the payment of case-related expenses from his clients’ settlement proceeds. The Court noted that at the time of his disciplinary hearing, the parties stipulated that Scribner had fully reimbursed his clients.

The Court also reported that Scribner had contracted with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) and agreed to refrain from using all mood-altering substances. Scribner testified at his disciplinary hearing that he was experiencing “mental health issues due to challenging situations in his life, including financial difficulties related to a failing business venture.”

The board recommended that Scribner be suspended from the practice of law for two years 18 months stayed, and that to be reinstated to the practice of law, Scribner be required to prove that he has complied with his OLAP contract and completed three hours of continuing legal education focused on client trust account management.  The board further recommended that Scribner be required to serve a one-year period of monitored probation focused on law-office and trust-account management.

After considering the range of sanctions imposed on other attorneys who have committed similar misconduct with client funds, the Court accepted the board’s recommendation and ordered Scribner to pay the cost of the disciplinary proceedings.

Greater Suspension Necessary, Justice Maintained
In an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice Fischer wrote that Scribner engaged in repeated violations of the professional conduct rules over a number of years, involving multiple clients.

“We cannot tolerate members of the bar misappropriating the funds of one client, let alone the funds of nine clients,” he wrote.

Justice Fischer stated that attorneys “must resist the lure of accessible client funds, even when times are hard,” to ensure the public has confidence in attorneys. He maintained that based on the sanctions handed out to other attorneys, a two-year suspension, with one year stayed, was warranted.

2023-0473. Disciplinary Counsel v. Scribner, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4017.

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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