Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021

State of Ohio v. Robert W. Bethel, Case no. 2020-0648
Tenth District Court of Appeals (Franklin County)

Acuity v. Masters Pharmaceutical, Inc., Case no. 2020-1134
First District Court of Appeals (Hamilton County)

Disciplinary Counsel v. Steven Edward Hillman, Case no. 2021-0443

Disciplinary Counsel v. Sean Richard Porter, Case no. 2021-0754

Did Prosecutor Withhold Key Documents from Defendant in Murder Trial?

State of Ohio v. Robert W. Bethel, Case No. 2020-0648
Tenth District Court of Appeals (Franklin County)


  • Is a defendant’s right to due process of law violated when the state suppresses material and exculpatory evidence in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland (1963)?
  • Does Ohio law regarding postconviction proceedings unconstitutionally shift the burden to a defendant when a defendant’s rights are violated under Brady?

On June 26, 1996, the bodies of James Reynolds and Shannon Hawk were found in a field in Columbus. Reynolds had been shot 10 times. Hawk was shot four times. Police recovered shell casings from a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9 mm firearm. The murder weapons were never found.

Donald Langbein and Jeremy Chavis are cousins, and their grandfather kept a garden in the field where the bodies were found. Langbein and Chavis occasionally went there to shoot guns. Langbein, Chavis, and Robert Bethel were members of the Crips gang. They and Chavis’ brother, Cheveldes, lived together in Columbus.

A few weeks before the murders, Bethel and Chavis’ brother each bought a 12-gauge shotgun from an Obetz gun store. In January 1997, after the murders, police searched the men’s residence and recovered Cheveldes’ shotgun. They didn’t find Bethel’s shotgun.

Four Years Later, Individual Tells Federal Agents about Murders
In 2000, Langbein was charged with an unrelated federal firearms violation. He told police and agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) that he knew about the Reynolds-Hawk murders. He agreed to record conversations with Bethel.

Bethel was arrested in November 2000. His two court-appointed attorneys reviewed discovery from the Franklin County prosecutor and believed a conviction with a death sentence was a strong possibility. They discussed a proposed plea bargain with Bethel, and Bethel agreed to testify against Chavis, who also had been arrested. In an August 2001 “off-the-record” statement for the case against Chavis, Bethel said murdering Reynolds and Hawk was Chavis’ idea, and Bethel described the shootings, stating he and Chavis had killed them.

Bethel pled guilty in August 2001 to two counts of aggravated murder with firearm specifications. Given Bethel’s statement regarding Chavis, the prosecutor agreed to drop the death penalty specifications.

A few months later, Bethel refused to testify against Chavis. The trial court voided the plea agreement, and the charges against Bethel were reinstated.

Defendant Testifies at His Trial for Murders
During Bethel’s trial, the prosecutor introduced the statement Bethel made against Chavis. Bethel testified that he lied about his involvement in the murders because he felt his attorneys weren’t prepared for the trial and he feared a conviction.

Langbein testified that he and Bethel had been worried about witnesses against another gang member in a different murder. Reynolds was involved in the burglary connected to that murder. Langbein said he and Bethel discussed taking steps “to get rid of” the witnesses. The day before the bodies were discovered, a group including himself, Bethel, the Chavises, Reynolds, and Hawk were hanging out, Langbein stated. Langbein offered Reynolds a ride home, but Bethel and Chavis said they would drive Reynolds.

Langbein stated that a few weeks after the murders Bethel said he and Chavis had killed Reynolds and Hawk. Bethel and his mother testified, however, that he and Chavis were at Bethel’s mother’s home at the time the murders occurred.

The jury convicted Bethel and recommended the death penalty, and the court agreed in August 2003. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Bethel’s convictions and sentences in a 2006 decision.

New Trial Requested Based on Additional Documents
In 2008, Bethel filed a motion for a new trial in common pleas court. He included a report from an ATF agent who had received a call from Shannon Williams three days after Bethel’s arrest in November 2000. Williams, who was in jail, stated that Langbein described involvement in a homicide with someone incarcerated in an Ashland, Kentucky, federal prison and gave other details of the crimes. Bethel indicated that Chavis was in that federal prison at the time of Williams’ conversation with Langbein.

The court rejected Bethel’s request, and the Tenth District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

Bethel filed another motion in September 2018. His request alleged that the prosecutor didn’t turn over a 2001 police report, referred to as “Summary 86,” about an interview with Ronald Withers. According to Withers, Chavis had admitted he and “his cousin” committed the Reynolds-Hawk murders. The court denied Bethel’s motion in April 2019. The Tenth District upheld the ruling.

Bethel appealed the latest Tenth District decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to review the issues.

Man Convicted for Murders Argues Prosecutor Withheld Witness Statements
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland (1963) states that “the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.”

Bethel argues the prosecutors failed to hand over the police reports containing the statements from Williams and Withers. He states that his first set of trial attorneys testified they didn’t receive the reports, yet the lower courts concluded they should have uncovered this evidence. That reasoning creates a “due diligence standard” for defense counsel to locate evidence that the state withholds, Bethel contends. However, he maintains, defendants aren’t required to dig for undisclosed Brady material when the prosecutor states that everything has been disclosed.

Bethel’s brief notes that the prosecutor claims Bethel knew of Withers and Williams because their names were on the prosecutor’s nine-page witness list. Williams was listed as number 313 of 364 potential witnesses, and Withers was number 361, the brief points out. Bethel asserts that the state doesn’t meet its Brady obligations by giving the defense a list of potential witness names.

“Due process requires that the prosecution provide defendants with any evidence that is favorable to them whenever that evidence is material either to their guilt or punishment. … Due process does not merely require the prosecution to provide defendants with the source of that evidence,” his brief argues.

Bethel maintains that he went through a capital trial without key evidence that would have pointed to Langbein and Chavis as the killers. Had this evidence been disclosed, he argues, his attorneys said they would have advised him differently regarding taking a plea. Bethel argues he is entitled to a new trial.

For multiple postconviction petitions like Bethel’s, an Ohio statute and a criminal court rule require a showing that the petitioner was “unavoidably prevented” from discovery of the evidence presented in the new petition. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, though, that defendants aren’t required to prove that they diligently scoured for evidence hidden by prosecutors, Bethel contends.

In Banks v. Dretke (2004), the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, “Our decisions lend no support to the notion that defendants must scavenge for hints of undisclosed Brady material when the prosecution represents that all such material has been disclosed.” The Banks opinion added that “[a] rule thus declaring ‘prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek,’ is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process.”

State Contends Defendant Wasn’t ‘Unavoidably Prevented’ from Finding Reports
The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office raises procedural concerns in this case. The office maintains that Bethel’s motions over the years for a new trial weren’t submitted properly, should have been made under the postconviction statutes, and missed deadlines.

The prosecutor also maintains that the Williams and Withers reports weren’t enough to prove a Brady violation. Nor did they demonstrate that Bethel was unavoidably prevented from discovering the reports in order to justify his court filings so long after his convictions, the prosecutor states. The office argues that Williams only indicated that Langbein was involved in a murder, not that he committed the Reynolds-Hawk murders. And other evidence besides Langbein’s testimony helped to convict Bethel, the office notes. Further, the prosecutor maintains, Langbein was wearing an ankle monitor at the time of the murders, and Williams’ statement implied that Bethel was the driver at the murders – a statement that undercuts Bethel’s alibi that he was at his mother’s home.

As for the information from Withers, the prosecutor states that it was hearsay and wouldn’t have been admitted in Bethel’s trial anyway.   

The office’s brief argues that proving a Brady violation requires a determination whether the defense truly lacked the information – “much more than just inventorying pieces of paper in a file.” The prosecutor contends that Bethel had to show he was ignorant of the exculpatory evidence he claims was suppressed. The prosecutor suggests the defense may have learned about the information in other ways – the prosecutors back then might have given his attorneys the information orally or might have presented an excerpt of the reports, or Bethel could have had insights based on his and his attorneys’ discussions with Chavis and his long relationship with Langbein. The office concludes that Bethel had to establish that he didn’t know about the evidence and, without that, he can’t prove “unavoidable prevention.”

The prosecutor also contends that the 2018 claims based on the Withers report were barred because Bethel had that material at the time of his 2008 motion. Bethel had to present the claim based on the Withers report in 2008, according to the prosecutor. Ultimately, the documentation Bethel says was suppressed didn’t establish the minimum needed for a Brady violation, the prosecutor argues.

The prosecutor asks the Court to reaffirm the finality of the convictions to prevent “unwarranted piecemeal litigation.”

National Innocence Group States Brady Is Being Subverted
The Innocence Network, an association of 69 organizations worldwide that provides legal or investigative services to prisoners, has filed an amicus curiae brief supporting Bethel’s positions.

The network focuses on the Ohio statute and criminal court rule that require those filing a postconviction petition to prove they were “unavoidably prevented” from discovering the new evidence. The network describes this language as a “due-diligence” requirement that allows courts to rule a defendant could have done more to discover the relevant evidence earlier. This due-diligence requirement undermines the promise of Brady and “creates nearly insurmountable obstacles to innocence litigation,” its brief states.

“An innocent inmate should not be punished because they did not discover the State’s misconduct,” the network maintains.

Kathleen Maloney

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing Robert W. Bethel from the Ohio Public Defender’s Office: Rachel Troutman, 614.466.5394

Representing the State of Ohio from the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office: Seth Gilbert, 614.525.3555

Representing the Innocence Network: Yvette McGee Brown, 614.469.3939

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Must Insurer Defend Claims against Distributor for Contributing to Opioid Epidemic?

Acuity v. Masters Pharmaceutical Inc., Case No. 2020-1134
First District Court of Appeals (Hamilton County)


  • Does a commercial general liability insurance policy that covers losses for bodily injury extend to governmental expenditures sustained to respond to an opioid epidemic?
  • Does a “loss in progress” clause in a commercial general liability policy exclude coverage from damage because of bodily injury if a wholesale distributor of opioids knew prior to the purchase of the policy that the medications were causing injuries?

Although Hamilton County-based Masters Pharmaceutical ceased their wholesale pharmaceutical distribution business in 2018, the dispute with its commercial insurer regarding the company’s role in the national opioid epidemic has drawn statewide and national interest from groups participating in the case through amicus curiae briefs. This case is unrelated to the consolidation of thousands of opioid-related causes before the federal district court in Northern Ohio because another insurance company is defending Masters in those cases. However, advocacy groups indicate this case addresses an issue of interest to many of the pharmaceutical companies involved in the nationwide lawsuits and their insurers.

At issue is whether the insurance companies are obligated to provide legal representation to policyholders that are being sued by state and local governments seeking to recoup taxpayer dollars spent on responding to the opioid crisis. While both providing a defense to the company and paying damages are still in dispute between the parties, the Ohio Supreme Court is considering only the issue of the insurer’s obligation to provide a legal defense.

From July 2010 to July 2018, Acuity issued commercial general liability policies to Masters. Masters had received insurance coverage from Westfield Insurance Company

Acuity used a standard industry policy form to cover Masters, and the terms didn’t change during the eight-year period. Part of the coverage stated Acuity would pay “those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of a bodily injury or property damages to which this insurance applies.” The policy also stated Acuity wouldn’t defend Masters or pay damages “to which this insurance does not apply.” Another clause, termed by Acuity as a “loss-in-progress” clause, stated the company would not pay damages if Masters received notice of a claim or occurrence and “knew that a bodily injury” occurred before the coverage took effect.

In 2012, West Virginia and local governments in Michigan and Nevada sued Masters and other painkiller distributors. They sought to be compensated for costs associated with increased police patrols, court expenditures, substance abuse treatment, emergency responses, medical services, and other epidemic-related expenses. Masters requested that Acuity and Westfield defend it against allegations that it flooded the market with opiates, which caused increased governmental operation costs. Other similar cases against Masters were transferred to the national prescription opiate litigation cases consolidated in federal court.

As part of their case against Masters, the government bodies point to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) finding that Masters knew about opiate addiction before sending excessive amounts of painkillers into the market. The DEA met with Masters’ leadership in 2009 to discuss suspicious distributions of the addictive painkiller oxycodone. In 2015, the DEA revoked Masters’ registration, preventing it from shipping the addictive drugs. The DEA described Masters’ misconduct as “egregious and exacerbated by its awareness of the opioid epidemic.”

Acuity and Westfield provided Masters a defense, but sought a declaratory judgment from the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court stating the companies’ policies didn’t require them to defend Masters or reimburse the company for any financial judgments against it. The trial court ruled the insurance companies had no duty to defend Masters.

Masters appealed the decision to the First District Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court’s decision in 2020. Acuity appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Coverage Limited to Damages from Specific Injuries, Insurer Asserts
Acuity argues the policy restricts payment of damages for bodily injuries incurred by specific persons who are injured by the company. The insurer maintains the government bodies aren’t claiming to recover the costs of care for specific people impacted by prescription painkillers in their communities, but rather their overall costs associated with additional expenditures they made to address unidentified people involved in the crisis.

The insurer maintains the First District was persuaded by a 2016 Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Cincinnati Ins. Co. v. H.D. Smith LLC. This was a similar lawsuit arising from West Virginia suing an opioid distributor. In that case, the judges noted the insurance policy would cover H.D. Smith, a wholesale distributor of prescription drugs, if a man proved he was injured by its negligent supply of painkillers. When asked if the injured man’s mother spent her own money to care for her son, Cincinnati Insurance’s attorney acknowledged the policy would cover her costs too.

The Seventh Circuit ruled there is no difference between the mother and the state if the state was paying to care for the injured son. The court ruled the insurance company must defend the distributor against the state’s claim.

Acuity argues the claims by the state aren’t similar to a mother caring for her son. The mother is incurring specific expenses tied to care for identified costs relating to her child’s bodily injury, the insurer states. The governmental bodies aren’t paying for care, but rather expenditures on public services in which bodily injuries to unspecified people aren’t directly identified. To extend the policy coverages from the costs of bodily injury to all societal costs associated with addressing those addicted to opioids would extend the obligation of the insurance company far beyond what the insurance contract contemplated, Acuity asserts.

Knowledge of Addiction Bars Coverage, Insurer Contends
While Acuity disputes that government expenditures are covered by the clause requiring it to pay for damages related to bodily injuries, the insurer maintains if that is true, then the policy still doesn’t apply to Masters. The trial court correctly found that Masters knew about the addiction epidemic before it purchased policies from Acuity starting in July 2010, the insurer maintains. By the time Masters bought the policies, the company already admitted to the DEA that it was aware of suspicious distributions of oxycodone into the epicenter of an oxycodone epidemic. That knowledge of its role in causing bodily injuries excludes the policy coverage under the “loss-in-progress” clause, the insurer concludes.

Policy Covers Defense for Claims Made by States, Distributor Argues
Masters notes the First District’s decision requiring Acuity provide coverage is in line with several ruling by courts across the nation. The First District noted that some of the claims by the government, especially those for emergency services and medical care, relate directly to bodily injuries suffered by residents in their community. Masters notes courts have routinely found that insurance companies must provide a defense if there are plausible claims against the insured for the damages they allegedly afflicted. Also, if some damages are plausible, then the insurance company is required to defend the insured against every claim made in the case by those allegedly harmed, Masters asserts.

Masters argues the insurance policy doesn’t state the damages have to be limited directly to the bodily injuries suffered by named people, and notes that if the government bodies were required to identify who they treated, they could.

Master notes the rule of insurance coverage is that any clause that is susceptible to more than one meaning must be interpreted to favor coverage, and that the burden is on Acuity to prove there is only one plausible interpretation of the policy that excludes coverage. Because the policy doesn’t expressly exclude some of the damages related to bodily injuries sought by the governmental bodies, the policy must be interpreted to cover Masters, the company argues.

Insurer Confuses Risks and Injuries, Distributor Asserts
Insurers have been required to provide defenses for companies involved in other societal issues, including damages suffered by communities from firearms and dangers of lead paint, Masters notes. The “loss-in-progress,” also labeled “known-loss,” clauses in policies don’t exclude coverage for a manufacturer or distributor that has general knowledge of the risks imposed by the product it places into the market, the company maintains.

Masters argues it acknowledged to the DEA that it was aware of an epidemic of addiction to oxycodone, but that Masters was never accused of or aware of a specific person who was injured by its distribution of the painkiller to pharmacies in the states suing the company. Masters states that its knowledge of the dangers, which was generally known to the public, doesn’t mean it knew that its distributions actually harmed an identified person. Because it was aware of a “known risk,” but not a “known loss,” before it purchased the policy, the coverage doesn’t exclude Masters from relying on Acuity to provide it a defense, the company concludes.

Friend-of-the-Court Briefs Submitted
An amicus curiae brief supporting Acuity’s position was submitted jointly by the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Complex Insurance Claims Litigation Association, and National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. The Ohio Insurance Institute also submitted a brief in support of Acuity.

United Policyholders filed an amicus brief supporting Masters.

Dan Trevas

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing Acuity: Benjamin Sasse, 216.592.5000

Representing Masters Pharmaceutical Inc.: Paul Rose, 330.535.5711

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Suspension Proposed for Attorney Who Blamed Client for Case’s Dismissal

Disciplinary Counsel v. Steven E. Hillman, Case No. 2021-0443
Franklin County

The Board of Professional Conduct recommends a Franklin County attorney receive a fully stayed two-year suspension for his role in the dismissal of a client’s lawsuit that sought insurance proceeds for a house fire.

Steven Hillman of Dublin objects to the recommended sanction, arguing that it was his client’s delays and refusals to cooperate with lawyers for Allstate Insurance that led to the dismissal. The Office of the Disciplinary Counsel places the blame squarely on Hillman and notes the client had to get another attorney to revive the lawsuit, which remained unresolved three years after a fire destroyed James Watkins’ property in Toledo.

When a party objects to a professional conduct board disciplinary report, the Ohio Supreme Court must hear oral argument in the case.

Denied Claim Leads to Lawsuit
In February 2017, Watkins’ Toledo home was destroyed by fire, and he submitted a claim to his insurer, Allstate. Allstate denied the claim, and Watkins hired Hillman to pursue a lawsuit. Hillman agreed to represent Watkins on a contingent fee basis and sued Allstate in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

Three attorneys for Allstate communicated with Hillman and Watkins during the course of the proceedings. Allstate’s lawyers sent requests for discovery to Hillman beginning in January 2019, including interrogatories for Watkins to answer, as well as requests for documents and to schedule a deposition.

Hillman didn’t promptly respond to the requests and he promised the documentation would be provided at a March pretrial conference. Hillman didn’t provide the information. Hillman informed Allstate that Watkins was available for deposition on April 12. Hillman sent responses to Allstate’s request on April 8, but the information didn’t contain verification pages that Watkins was supposed to sign. At the deposition, Watkins signed the verification pages.

In April, Allstate asked Hillman for a federal form signed by Watkins that allowed the insurance company to access Watkins’ tax returns.   

After prolonged delays, Hillman handwrote the responses to the written questions Allstate posed to Watkins. The attorney answered many of the questions by stating that Watkins didn’t know or couldn’t remember the information the insurer sought. An Allstate attorney complained to Hillman that the answers were “evasive and incomplete.” Hillman provided the federal tax form with his own signature and not of Watkins.

Insurer Seeks Court’s Assistance
In September 2019, Allstate requested that the trial court dismiss Watkins’ case for failing to comply with the discovery requests and for Hillman to pay the company’s legal fees. Hillman didn’t respond to the request until three weeks later, after the trial court dismissed the case.

Just before the case was dismissed, Allstate offered to settle for $100,000. Hillman advised Watkins of the offer, but told him that it was too low. He didn’t tell Watkins about the pending motion to dismiss the case. Hillman rejected the offer and proposed a $600,000 settlement, which the Allstate attorneys rejected.

Along with dismissing the case, the trial court ordered Hillman to pay Allstate $1,056 in attorney fees. Hillman informed Watkins by text message that the case was dismissed.

Watkins filed a grievance with the disciplinary counsel against Hillman. He also got a new attorney, who was able to win an appeal and revive the lawsuit.

Board Finds Rule Violations
Both Hillman and Watkins testified before a three-member panel of the professional conduct board. Hillman told the panel he communicated with Watkins mostly by phone calls and that he believed he kept Watkins informed of everything going on in the case. He also said he attempted to fulfill Allstate’s discovery requests.

However, Watkins said he wasn’t informed about what was happening with his case and that, mostly, Hillman kept reassuring him everything was going well. Watkins said he was willing to cooperate with Allstate if Hillman explained the importance and urgency of its requests. He said that he didn’t sign or complete the tax form requests because he received federal Supplemental Security Income as his income and that Hillman knew he didn’t file income taxes. He said the first he heard about the need to complete the verification pages was at the deposition, and that Hillman first alerted him of the date of deposition on the day it was take place.

The panel ruled, and the full board agreed, that Hillman violated two professional conduct rules: failing to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter, and not diligently complying with a legally proper discovery request.

The board noted that Hillman was briefly suspended from the practice of law in 2009 and 2011 for failing to register to practice by the Supreme Court’s deadline and, in 2016, he received a fully stayed one-year suspension for failing to file a federal personal income tax return. Based on his behavior and prior record, the board recommends that the Court suspend Hillman for two years, and stay the suspension with the condition that Hillman commit no further misconduct.

Attorney Opposes Sanction
Hillman opposes the proposed sanctions. He states that Watkins never denied that Hillman informed him of the status of his case, but Watkins “chose to ignore the obligation to cooperate.”

Hillman argues he informed Watkins of his duty to cooperate and Watkins just refused to do so, and that Hillman shouldn’t be punished for the acts of his client. Hillman also denies that he didn’t comply with Allstate’s discovery requests, indicating Allstate received every document its attorneys requested.

Hillman notes that at the April deposition, Watkins told the Allstate attorneys he didn’t file tax returns for the years they sought, yet they kept insisting that Watkins give Allstate permission to access the returns. Hillman maintains that he shouldn’t be punished for his inability to “verify the non-existence of tax returns.” He concludes that the Court would set a bad precedent if punishing him for the ethical violations of his client.

Sanction Appropriate, Disciplinary Counsel Asserts
Watkins’ testimony about his lack of knowledge about his case and the interactions with the Allstate lawyers clearly indicate that Hillman didn’t keep his client informed and didn’t fully respond to discovery requests, the disciplinary counsel argues.

Despite the numerous phone calls, Hillman produced no evidence that he explained to Watkins the importance of his compliance with the discovery requests, and he never told Watkins about the pending dismissal of the case until after it was dismissed, the office asserts.

The disciplinary counsel maintains that Hillman cannot point to a “single email, letter, or text message” that demonstrates he regularly informed Watkins about the case. The office notes this is the fourth time Hillman is before the Court for rule violations, and that his dereliction of duty harmed a vulnerable client who three years later was still trying to resolve his insurance claim. The office supports the board’s proposed fully stayed two-year suspension.

Dan Trevas

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel: Joseph Caligiuri, 614.387.9700

Steven Hillman, representing himself: 614.562.9313

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Attorney Faces Suspension for Sexual Activity with Two Clients

Disciplinary Counsel v. Sean R. Porter, Case No. 2021-0754
Cuyahoga County

The Board of Professional Conduct recommends that a Chagrin Falls attorney be suspended for two years with one year stayed.

The board determined Sean Porter had sex with two clients while handling their divorce, custody, and related matters, and he signed and falsely notarized one client’s name on a document. Porter also denied his sexual relationship with the other client in materials submitted during the disciplinary investigation.

Porter has objected to the proposed sanction, requiring the Ohio Supreme Court to hold oral argument in the case.

Attorney and Client Start Intimate Relationship
Beginning in December 2018, Porter represented a woman identified as M.H. in her divorce. The divorce was finalized in May 2019, but Porter continued representing M.H. throughout the year on related matters.

During the time of Porter’s representation, M.H. was in recovery for alcoholism. Her children lived in Lakewood with their father, while she lived and worked at a California rehabilitation facility related to her addiction.

Porter and M.H. began sending inappropriate and sexually suggestive text messages to each other in July 2019. In a July court filing, Porter included an affidavit from M.H. Porter had signed M.H.’s signature for her and then notarized it.

After M.H. flew to Ohio for two court hearings, she and Porter had sex. Porter broke up with her in September 2019. On Oct. 15, M.H. informed the law firm where Porter worked about his conduct. When confronted, Porter initially denied M.H.’s allegations but admitted to them later that day. Among the steps the firm required of Porter, he was told that if he didn’t report his misconduct to disciplinary authorities within a week the firm would report him.

Another Client Invites Attorney to Dinner
Porter was hired in the summer of 2019 by a woman identified as A.H. to represent her in a divorce and on a domestic violence charge. After positive news in her criminal case, A.H. invited Porter, who was still handling her other legal matters, to dinner. He went to dinner and, afterward, they had sex. Porter and A.H. exchanged text messages for several weeks.

They texted on the evening of Oct. 15, the day that the law firm confronted Porter about his improper relationship with M.H. The attorney failed to inform the law firm about his relationship with A.H. at that time. When he reported his involvement with M.H. to the disciplinary authorities that week, he didn’t mention his ongoing intimate relationship with A.H.

The law firm fired Porter in December 2019. He and A.H. continued their relationship until March 2020 when Porter broke it off. In early April, A.H. filed a grievance against the attorney. In his response to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, Porter falsely and repeatedly claimed that his relationship with A.H. didn’t begin until after the firm removed him from her case in November 2019. He also attacked her character and motives.

Attorney Violated Ethical Rules, Board Determines
A three-member panel of the professional conduct board reviewed Porter’s case, held a hearing, and made recommendations for disciplinary action. The board agreed with the panel’s conclusion that Porter violated three rules governing attorney conduct – engaging in sexual activity with a client, making a false statement by signing M.H.’s name and notarizing it, and lying in his written response during the disciplinary investigation.

When considering a disciplinary sanction, the board considers aggravating circumstances that could increase the penalty and mitigating factors that could lead to a lesser sanction. Among the aggravating circumstances found in Porter’s case are a dishonest and selfish motive, the vulnerability of his clients, making false statements, and a refusal to acknowledge that his conduct was wrong. The absence of a prior disciplinary record and a good faith effort to reimburse the clients through the law firm were identified as mitigating.

The board recommends a two-year suspension with one year stayed on conditions. If approved by the Court, Porter must contact the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) for an evaluation within 60 days of the final order in this case, must not have any direct client contact or handle client funds during his suspension, and must refrain from further misconduct.

As conditions for reinstatement to practicing law, the board suggests that the attorney must give proof that he has complied with OLAP’s assessment, complete six hours of continuing legal education regarding ethical boundaries for lawyers, and work with a monitoring attorney for two years. The monitoring attorney will pre-approve any professional interactions with potential female clients and review all of Porter’s interactions with those clients.

Lesser Timeout Is Warranted, Attorney Maintains
Porter disagrees with the board’s recommended sanction. He argues for a six-month, rather than a one-year, actual suspension from practicing law.

He maintains in his objections that the women initiated the personal and consensual relationships. He emphasizes that his personal relationships with M.H. and A.H. weren’t motivated by financial gain, and he didn’t offer a discount on legal services in exchange for sexual favors.

Porter also notes that after A.H. filed a complaint, he reached out to OLAP for help. He currently is receiving treatment from a therapist. However, his brief argues, he was unable to obtain a sustained period of mental-health treatment during the pandemic. He believes that his ongoing treatment should have been considered as a mitigating factor and that he is being punished for being unable to obtain mental-health treatment sooner during a pandemic.

Porter adds that he had a heavy workload at the earlier firm and received little, if any, guidance from the attorneys there. After he was fired, he joined his father’s law firm, where he is excelling under his father’s mentorship and oversight, he notes.

Proposed Sanction in Line with Disciplinary Precedent, Disciplinary Counsel States
The disciplinary counsel notes that Porter knew of the allegation against him in October 2019 and the disciplinary complaint was filed in October 2020. Yet he waited until April 2021, a few weeks before his disciplinary hearing, to seek treatment, the disciplinary counsel’s brief explains. Porter didn’t raise the issue that he couldn’t find mental-health counseling during the COVID-19 crisis, nor did he present any evidence to support that claim, the brief states.

The disciplinary counsel’s brief also notes that during the disciplinary process Porter acknowledged some of his wrongdoing, then shifted the blame to his clients by stating they initiated the personal relationships and he has trouble saying “no” to people. He continues in his objections in this case to not appreciate the seriousness of his actions, the brief maintains.

The disciplinary counsel adds that Porter also implies a lack of supervision at his earlier firm was a cause of his misconduct even though his misconduct continued after he joined his father’s firm. The disciplinary counsel states that, while at his new firm, besides continuing his personal relationship with A.H., he filed a response during the disciplinary investigation that was filled with lies about the timing of the relationship with A.H., “victim-blaming,” and “character assassination.”

Citing a Court ruling in an earlier disciplinary case, the disciplinary counsel contends that an abuse of the attorney-client relationship not only harms the client’s dignity, but also “impugns the legal system as a whole.”

Kathleen Maloney

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing Sean R. Porter: Holly Wilson, 216.687.1311

Representing the Office of Disciplinary Counsel: Joseph Caligiuri, 614.387.9700

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