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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Cincinnati Attorney Sanctioned for Assisting a Suspended Attorney’s Unauthorized Law Practice

The Ohio Supreme Court today suspended a Cincinnati attorney who “remained willfully ignorant of his own professional obligations” when he agreed to aid a suspended — now disbarred attorney — in the unauthorized practice of law.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court suspended Michael J. Begovic for one year, with six months stayed, and required him to serve two years of monitored probation once he is reinstated to practice. The Court’s per curiam opinion noted that Begovic had been admitted to practice law for only three months when he agreed to represent clients on behalf of the suspended Rodger W. Moore, and allowed Moore to participate in cases as his “supervisor.”

The arrangement drew the attention of the Cincinnati Bar Association, which filed charges with the Board of Professional Conduct against Begovic relating to the four months of his employment with Moore. While Begovic initially contested most of the allegations against him, by the end of a hearing conducted by a three-member board panel, he admitted to all the charged violations of the rules governing the conduct of Ohio attorneys.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart joined the opinion.

In an opinion dissenting in part, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy objected to the imposition of monitored probation, stating that if the disciplinary process and additional continued legal education required of Begovic is not enough to correct his behavior, no amount of monitoring will help him elevate to the “responsible and ethical practice of law.”

Justice R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s dissent.

Attorney Responds to Hiring Ad
Shortly after being admitted to practice law in 2016, Begovic contacted Moore in response to an advertisement for an entry-level attorney position. Begovic had two interviews with Moore, and during the second interview, Moore told Begovic that he was a suspended attorney, but would be reinstated in 2017. (See Greater Cincinnati Attorney Suspended for Repeated Shoplifting.). Because of his suspended status, Moore said Begovic would be working as a contractor for the “Moore Business Advisory Group” as opposed to working directly with Moore as an employee of his law firm. Moore formed the group after his suspension went into effect and told Begovic he still had “a good relationship with his clients.”

Begovic accepted a position with a fixed annual salary, regardless of the workload or success in handling cases, and Moore also agreed to pay Begovic’s Kentucky bar-admission fee and for his malpractice insurance.

Attorney Appears to be Part of Firm
Moore provided Begovic office space in Cincinnati with signage that read “Law Offices of Andrew Green and Rodger Moore,” not “Moore Business Advisory Group.” While Begovic officially began working for Moore in mid-February 2017, he applied in late January for membership in the Cincinnati Bar Association and indicated he worked for “The Moore Law Firm.”

At Moore’s instruction, Begovic filed notices of substitution of counsel in several cases in January, before his start date. Despite knowing that Moore was under suspension, Begovic did not register the relationship with the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel, which is required by Ohio’s Rules for the Government of the Bar. Begovic continually held himself out as associated with the firm and identified himself in court filings and emails to opposing lawyers as working for the The Moore Law Firm or the Law Office of Rodger Moore.

When Begovic obtained malpractice insurance, he was told by the insurer he had to practice as an individual and not under the name he provided, “The Moore Advisory Group LLC,” and that he had to make clear to clients he was an individual practitioner. Begovic later admitted he did not comply with the requirements.

Lawyer Lets Suspended Attorney Participate in Cases
The majority of Begovic’s work involved bill collection cases for Moore’s client, PHI Air Medical. Begovic substituted for Moore in 14 cases for PHI Air, but he permitted Moore to participate directly in PHI Air litigation. When asked by an opposing lawyer or a judge what role Moore was playing in his cases, Begovic responded that Moore was his supervisor and did not disclose the Moore was suspended.

Begovic also revealed he had no direct contact with PHI Air, and that all of the company’s communications went to Moore, who conveyed them to Begovic. Moore also directed Begovic on what actions to take. By failing to have direct contact, Begovic violated the rule requiring him to inform the client of decisions or circumstances that required the company’s consent and violated the rule requiring lawyers to keep clients reasonably informed about the status of their matters.

While receiving a set salary, Begovic did not enter into fee agreements with clients, and he was aware that Moore was being paid by clients Begovic was serving. He did not discuss the nature and scope of his representation with clients and did not discuss the fee rate they would be responsible for paying. While disciplinary investigators found no specific evidence about Moore’s fee arrangements with clients, Begovic’s explanation of the circumstances led the board to conclude that Begovic violated the rules against sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer and accepting legal fees from someone other than the client without complying with the conditions for doing so.

The Court Adopts the Sanction Recommended by the Board
When the board considers a sanction to recommend to the Court, it considers aggravating circumstances that could increase the penalty and mitigating factors that could lead to a lesser sanction. The board found Begovic had no prior disciplinary record, lacked a selfish or dishonest motive, and cooperated with the disciplinary proceedings.

The board also found Begovic committed multiple rule violations and several other aggravating factors, including a failure to accept responsibility for his misconduct. Begovic, citing naivete and poor judgment, claimed he “simply did not realize” he was violating professional conduct rules. He also argued that his violations were technical infractions of the rules and not substantial.

The board concluded that throughout his employment relationship with Moore and during the disciplinary proceedings, Begovic “remained willfully ignorant” of his ethical obligations and failed to make any effort to determine whether his arrangement with Moore required compliance with any rules, and he did not even inquire into the reasons for Moore’s suspension.

The Court adopted the mitigating and aggravating factors as determined by the board, and stated in its opinion that the record indicates Begovic lacks an understanding of his ethical duties as a lawyer, and did not acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct. The Court suspended Begovic for one year with six months stayed with the conditions that he not commit further misconduct, and that he complete six hours of continuing legal education on legal ethics, in addition to the minimum hours of continuing legal education required of lawyers. When reinstated to the practice of law, he must serve two years of monitored probation with the monitor overseeing Begovic’s “acclimation to the responsible and ethical practice of law and his implementation of proper law-office-management procedures.”

Partial Dissent Questions Value of Monitored Probation
Justice Kennedy agreed with the majority opinion’s determination that Begovic be suspended, but dissented from the imposition of a two-year period of monitored probation. She wrote that monitors “are a precious, finite resource” carried out by volunteer attorneys, and that their services should only be used when the monitor’s efforts will educate the attorney and help correct the conduct that led to the suspension.

“In my view, this case does not merit the use of a monitor, because Begovic’s misconduct was the direct result of his deliberate acts,” the opinion stated.

The opinion stated that Begovic knew Moore was a suspended lawyer but still assisted Moore in the repeated unauthorized practice of law.  Begovic also indicated on numerous court filings that he was affiliated with “The Moore Law Firm,” despite his professional-liability insurer advising him that he needed to make it apparent to his clients that he was an individual practitioner.

The opinion added that no amount of monitoring to oversee the proper implementation of Begovic’s law-office-management procedures will protect the public, educate him, or correct the misconduct that resulted from Begovic’s willful ignorance of his professional obligations.

“If the disciplinary process and the required six hours of continuing legal education on the topic of legal ethics are not sufficient to educate Begovic and correct his behavior regarding engaging in a professional association with a suspended attorney, no amount of monitoring will acclimate him to the ‘responsible and ethical practice of law,’ ” Justice Kennedy wrote.

2019-0220. Cincinnati Bar Assn. v. Begovic, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4531.

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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