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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Former Judge Who Assaulted Wife Indefinitely Suspended

Court Also Disbars Warren Attorney, Suspends Cincinnati Attorney

Former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Lance Mason was indefinitely suspended from the practice of law by the Ohio Supreme Court today, and he can only apply for reinstatement by meeting certain conditions that include undergoing a mental health evaluation.

In addition to suspending Mason, the Supreme Court today permanently disbarred Timothy E. Bellew of Warren, and suspended John P. Weber of Cincinnati for two years with one year stayed with conditions.

The Board of Professional Conduct recommended that Mason be disbarred for reasons stemming from his August 2015 conviction for the felonious assault of his wife and for domestic violence. In a unanimous opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that because Mason’s misconduct did not involve dishonesty or abuse of his judicial office and was not premeditated or part of a pattern of behavior, his ultimate penalty should be less than disbarment.

Mason had objected to the board’s recommendation, and his case was orally argued at a special off-site court session conducted at Marietta High School in October.

To be reinstated, Mason will need to submit to a mental health evaluation by the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP); enter into a contract with OLAP with the terms determined by OLAP; and comply with all recommendations by OLAP and any of Mason’s treating professionals.

Judge Assaults Wife in Front of Children
Mason and his wife, Aisha Fraser, separated in 2014 and shared custody and parenting of their two minor children. In August 2014, after attending the funeral of Mason’s aunt, Mason and Fraser had an argument while Mason was driving Fraser to her apartment. Mason repeatedly struck Fraser, who escaped from the vehicle. Mason drove away with the two children in the car, who were 6 and 4 years old at the time. Fraser sustained severe injuries from the attack, and the two children received counseling to deal with witnessing the assault.

Mason was charged with eight criminal counts. On the same day as his August 2014 indictment, the Supreme Court disqualified Mason as a judge. After pleading guilty to two charges in August 2015, he was sentenced to 24 months in prison and six months in county jail, which ran concurrently.

The Ohio State Bar Association filed a complaint against Mason based on the crimes. The professional conduct board found that he violated several rules governing the conduct of Ohio judges and attorneys, including the requirements that judges act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary, and not engage in illegal acts. The board agreed with the bar association’s claims and recommended that the Court permanently disbar Mason.

Court Weighs Disbarment Option
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.

The Court found Mason’s victims suffered harm from his acts, and that he failed to adequately explain his conduct, failed to provide assurances the conduct will not happen again, and was not fully engaged in the process of redeeming himself.

The Court also found that Mason did not have a prior disciplinary record, was cooperative in the disciplinary process, and presented evidence of good character and reputation. He also had been subject to other sanctions, including a prison sentence that he completed, the loss of his judgeship, and a debt from settling a civil lawsuit with his former wife for $150,000. The Court also acknowledged that Mason apologized to his former wife at the end of the civil case.

The Court agreed with the board’s findings, but also found an additional mitigating factor was the stress Mason was feeling at the time of the assault. The opinion stated his house had flooded twice in the months leading up to the assault, he had gone to the emergency room complaining of chest pains, he was dealing with the separation from his wife, and he was leaving his aunt’s funeral at the time of the attack of his wife.

Justice Kennedy noted the board based its recommendation on five cases where judges were disbarred for committing grave misconduct, including four convicted of felonies. In those cases the judges engaged in criminal conduct over a period of time, from a few days to months, and the misconduct was planned. The opinion stated that the Court does not “demean the gravity and severity” of Mason’s actions, but believes there is a distinction between his misconduct and that of the judges in the cases the board cited.

“In this case, Mason was convicted of a felony based on a single violent assault. Brutal it surely was. But it was not shown to be premeditated or part of a pattern of behavior,” the opinion stated.

The Court found Mason’s behavior was closer to that of a sitting judge convicted of lying to federal investigators, and who received an indefinite suspension with no credit for the time served out of the practice of law between the removal from the bench and the imposition of an indefinite suspension.

The Court also wrote it could not find any cases of a judge being disciplined for a felony assault conviction. But it did find cases where lawyers were convicted of felony-level assaults, and those attorneys received credit for the interim suspensions that were imposed between the dates they were charged with misconduct until the Court formally suspended them.

However, because the Court holds judges to “the highest possible standard of ethical conduct,” the opinion stated that Mason deserved a penalty greater than those imposed on a lawyer.

2017-0794. Ohio State Bar Assn. v. Mason, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-9215.

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Attorney Abandons Clients
Bellew, whose last known address was in Warren, has been suspended continuously since January 2015 after he first failed to respond to a disciplinary complaint. He first received interim suspensions, which were later converted to indefinite suspensions because he failed to seek the court’s permission to file a belated response to the pending complaints.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel was investigating Bellew for two complaints filed by clients who he agreed to represent after he was suspended. In both cases, the clients were not notified of Bellew’s suspensions until they appeared in court and Bellew failed to appear.

“Given that Bellew has not only abandoned multiple clients and failed to refund their retainers, but failed to cooperate in multiple disciplinary investigations, failed to answer five formal disciplinary complaints filed against him, and continued to practice law while his license was under suspension, we agree that that only appropriate sanction in this case is permanent disbarment,” the Court stated in a unanimous per curiam opinion.

2016-1082. Disciplinary Counsel v. Bellew, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-9203.

Lawyer Practices Under Suspension
Weber, whose last known business address was in Cincinnati, was suspended by the Court in December 2015 for failing to complete his required continuing legal education. Weber moved his office without notifying the Court’s Office of Attorney Services, and the notice of his suspension did not reach him immediately. However, Weber continued to represent clients in legal proceedings while he was suspended.

Weber initially cooperated in the disciplinary proceedings, but later stopped, and did not appear at his disciplinary hearing. In a 6-1 per curiam opinion, the Court agreed with the board’s recommendation that Weber be suspended for two years, with one year stayed, with the conditions that he disburse funds from his client trust account to his clients, and commit no further misconduct.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, William M. O’Neill, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the opinion.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented, writing that he would suspend Weber for the full 24 months.

2017-1084. Cincinnati Bar Assn. v. Weber, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-9243.

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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