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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Lawyer Jailed for Client Theft Permanently Disbarred

The Ohio Supreme Court today permanently disbarred a Delaware County lawyer who was convicted of felony theft for misappropriating funds from a mentally incompetent client and continued to practice law after agreeing to cease during his pending criminal proceedings.

Christopher Burchinal admitted to 37 violations of the rules governing the professional conduct of Ohio lawyers that were associated with his theft conviction as well as his representation of six other clients. In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court noted that Burchinal repeatedly failed to provide services for which clients paid him to complete and then lied to clients, their families, judges, and disciplinary investigators when confronted.

Burchinal, who was suspended previously for two years with 18 months stayed in 2012, asked the Court for a “second chance,” seeking an indefinite suspension rather than disbarment. The Court’s opinion stated Burchinal already received a second chance after the 2012 suspension, and “he came back to tell more lies and again steal money from vulnerable clients.”

Lawyer Lies About Bilking Money from Client
The latest round of charges against Burchinal were filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in October 2018 based on his representation of a client identified in the Court’s records as B.C. The Board of Professional Conduct delayed disciplinary proceedings because Burchinal was under criminal investigation for his conduct with B.C. In January 2019, the disciplinary counsel amended its complaint, which included allegations of misconduct dealing with B.C. and six other clients who had hired Burchinal between 2016 and 2019.

B.C. was first charged with misdemeanor crimes in 2016 in Delaware Municipal Court, and Burchinal was appointed to represent him. The misdemeanor charges were dismissed when B.C. was indicted by a grand jury for a felony. Burchinal was again appointed to represent him.

At Burchinal’s request, the common pleas court approved a psychiatric evaluation of
B.C. to determine his competency to stand trial. A day before B.C.’s competency hearing, Burchinal asked to borrow $8,000 from B.C., telling his client he was short on funds after incurring significant medical expenses. B.C. lent him the money.

The next day, the court ruled B.C. incompetent to stand trial. In the following month, Burchinal asked to borrow money from B.C. four more times, requesting $11,200 for a total loan amount of $19,200. In the meantime, B.C. was arrested again on a separate felony drug possession charge. He was released from jail on bond, and Burchinal was appointed to represent him.

In February 2017, Burchinal wrote a $5,000 check to B.C. as a partial repayment of the loan, but on that date, he had only about $1,000 in his bank account. When B.C. tried to cash the check in May 2017, Burchinal’s account was closed, and B.C. wasn’t able to receive the funds.

Lawyer Jailed After Misappropriating More Client Money
B.C. was arrested for failing to abide by the terms of his bond and was ordered to confinement in a state mental health institution. While institutionalized, B.C. asked Burchinal to assist in paying his bills. Burchinal asked B.C. to sign several blank checks to pay the bills.

Burchinal then wrote three of the pre-signed checks to himself for $10,000, which were for his personal use. He then told B.C. he needed to hire an investigator to work on B.C.’s criminal case and used three checks for a total of $11,100 to pay the “investigator.” However, Burchinal took the money for his personal use. By May 2017, Burchinal had borrowed or taken $41,300 from B.C.

In May 2017, B.C.’s competency was restored, and he was released from the institution. He discovered Burchinal took more than the money he loaned him, believing he was owed $7,300 in addition to the loan. Burchinal promised to pay B.C. $26,500 in monthly installments of $2,500. B.C. soon found out that Burchinal had taken $14,800 more than he believed, and when confronted, Burchinal agreed to pay B.C. the full $41,300 he owed.

Burchinal made one full monthly payment and one partial payment. Six months later, he paid B.C. $17,000, and he paid the balance in October 2018.

In August 2019, a Delaware County grand jury indicted Burchinal on one count of felony theft and one count of passing bad checks based on his misappropriation of B.C.’s money. He agreed to plead guilty to the theft charge in January 2020 in exchange for dismissal of the passing-bad-checks charge. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, one to five years of community control, and to complete 50 hours of community service.

Lawyer Lies About Suspension
While facing his criminal charges, Burchinal continued to represent clients. The disciplinary counsel charged him with several rule violations based on those matters, including failing to follow through with matters for which the clients paid, lying to the clients about his failure to act, and using client fees for personal expenditures.

The professional conduct board delayed Burchinal’s disciplinary proceedings while he was under criminal investigation and asked him to consider registering as inactive until there was a resolution to his criminal charges. Burchinal agreed in June 2019 to go into inactive status in September 2019, giving him time to “wind down” his practice, and in November 2019, the Court suspended his license for his failure to register as an attorney for the 2019/2021 biennium.

But in September and December 2019, Burchinal twice appeared in courts to represent clients, and was confronted by the judges about his status. Burchinal admitted he misrepresented his status to the judges in those cases.

Supreme Court Considered Sanction
The board reported that not only did Burchinal commit several rule violations in his handling of client cases, and lying to the courts, but also repeatedly failed to cooperate in disciplinary proceedings. The Court’s opinion noted Burchinal engaged in two types of conduct where the presumed sanction is disbarment — misappropriating clients’ funds and practicing law while under suspension.

The board reported that his misconduct represented an “escalation of prior misconduct” since his 2012 suspension. The board described his lying as “almost pathological.”

Burchinal argued to the Court that an indefinite suspension was sufficient to protect the public and that this penalty had been granted to other lawyers who committed similar misconduct. He noted he expressed remorse for his actions, fully paid restitution to his clients, and had been engaged with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) to address mental disorders that impacted his practice.

The Court noted that Burchinal cooperated in the proceedings after the complaints had been received by the board and that he had been sanctioned for his criminal punishment. However, the “three-year pattern of deceit, his theft from an incompetent client,” and his indifference to the rehabilitation proposed by OLAP demonstrated “that the only sanction that will adequately protect the public from future harm is permanent disbarment,” the Court stated.

2020-1206. Disciplinary Counsel v. Burchinal, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-774.

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