Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Attorney Who Charged Excessive Fee Indefinitely Suspended

The Ohio Supreme Court today indefinitely suspended an Urbana attorney who was convicted of a felony because he netted $127,000 by selling the land of his client to pay her legal fee even though he provided only $9,000 in legal services.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court suspended Christopher R. Bucio. The per curiam opinion also ordered that Bucio not be allowed to apply for reinstatement until after he completes the five-year community control sanction he received as part of his criminal sentence.

Lawyer Accepts Land for Payment
In August 2010, Linda Heuker was arrested in Sidney after a marijuana-growing operation was found in her basement. Bucio met Heuker at the Shelby County jail and she advised him that she did not have the cash to pay his attorney fee, but she would be willing to sell a 22-acre parcel of farmland to pay for representation.

Bucio suggested Heuker transfer the land to him and he would work out the details. Heuker believed that Bucio would sell the land, deduct his attorney fees and expenses from the sale proceeds, and provide her with the balance. She signed a fee agreement with Bucio that required her to pay a flat fee for each stage of representation, including $30,000 for the pre-trial stage. She agreed to pay a combined $50,000 for representation during two subsequent stages.

The first page of the fee agreement included a handwritten note that stated Heuker would transfer her land in exchange for full payment of the legal fees and expenses. Heuker later claimed she only saw the signature page of the agreement and was not given an opportunity to review the other pages.

Within two weeks of Heuker’s arrest, Bucio was able to reach a plea agreement with the county prosecutor. She pled guilty to a third-degree felony and was released from jail. About a month after her release, Bucio’s law firm transferred the farmland to a real-estate company owned by the law firm partners, and Heuker’s land sold for $135,000. After paying various expenses, including Heuker’s outstanding mortgage and a court judgment related to her case, the law firm’s real-estate company netted $127,767 from the sale. That money was ultimately transferred to Bucio.

Neither Bucio nor anyone else in the law firm advised Heuker of the sale or the sale price of the land, and in 2011, Heuker attempted to contact Bucio about the remaining money from the farm sale. Bucio did not return her calls, and cancelled appointments she made with his staff. He informed her in August 2011 that she was not entitled to any portion of the sale proceeds because he agreed to accept the land as a flat fee for his representation.

Bucio later acknowledged that he spent about 40 hours on Heuker’s case, and if he had charged her his standard $225 per hour rate, he would have received $9,000 for his representation.

Client Sues Lawyer
In August 2012, Heuker filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Bucio and made other claims. The trial court dismissed the case, finding she filed beyond the statute of limitations. However, the Shelby County prosecutor became aware of the matter and requested the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to examine the transaction between Heuker and Bucio. That led to Bucio pleading guilty in 2016 to one count of unauthorized use of property, a fourth-degree felony.

In January 2017, Bucio was sentenced to five years of community control and was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

Disciplinary Investigation Also Ensued
Prior to conviction, the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel began investigating the incident. The disciplinary counsel in 2015 charged Bucio with violating several rules governing the conduct of lawyers, based on his interactions with Heuker. Bucio stipulated to most of the charges against him that were presented to the Board of Professional Conduct.

The board noted that at the time Bucio directed Heuker to sign the deed transferring the farmland to his law firm, he violated the rules lawyers must follow when entering into business transactions with their clients. That included: failing to disclose in writing the terms on which he was acquiring an interest in her property; failing to give Heuker reasonable time to seek advice from another attorney on the merits of the transaction; and not receiving Heuker’s informed consent to the essential terms of the transaction.

Because Bucio refused to tell Heuker about the sale, the board found he violated the rule requiring lawyers to keep their clients reasonably informed of the status of their matters, and to comply with client information requests as soon as practicable.

Bucio’s acknowledgement that he would have been paid $9,000 if he charged a flat fee for his actual work on the case prompted the board to conclude he charged an excessive fee by keeping the entire $127,000 profit from the sale. And his conviction led the board to conclude he committed an illegal act that reflects adversely on a lawyer’s honesty and trustworthiness.

In 2016, Bucio agreed to pay Heuker $97,767 to settle the matter. The parties reached that amount by deducting $30,000—the amount Bucio would have received from Heuker under their fee agreement for his representation during the pretrial stage of her case –from $127,767, the amount Bucio received for selling her land.

Court Considers Sanction 
When imposing a sanction, the Court considers several factors including aggravating circumstances that could enhance a penalty and mitigating factors that could lead to a less-severe punishment.

In its recommendation to the Court, the board found Bucio had a dishonest motive and engaged in multiple rule violations. The board noted that Heuker suffered serious financial harm from Bucio’s misconduct because she was forced to initiate a civil lawsuit to recoup her money, and she did not receive her portion until six years after the sale. The board’s hearing panel in the matter noted that Bucio did not express remorse or accept accountability for his actions until after his 2016 criminal conviction.

The board also noted that Bucio had no prior disciplinary actions and that he received other penalties and sanctions for his behavior.

The Court’s opinion stated that the board found Bucio’s conduct was essentially misappropriating his client’s funds, and the presumed sanction for such behavior is disbarment. However, the board recommended an indefinite suspension, citing two similar misappropriation cases by other attorneys. In both those cases, the attorneys had no prior discipline.

“We agree with the board that Bucio’s egregious misconduct here was tantamount to misappropriation of client funds,” the opinion stated.

2017-0800. Disciplinary Counsel v. Bucio, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-8709.

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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