Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Suspended Columbus Attorney Caught Practicing Law Now Disbarred

The Ohio Supreme Court today disbarred a Columbus attorney for representing multiple clients with conflicting interests, practicing law while under suspension, and failing to cooperate in a disciplinary investigation.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court disbarred John J. Okuley. The Court suspended Okuley in September 2018 for one year with six months stayed for intentionally colliding with a bicyclist while driving, provoking a physical altercation with a doctor who witnessed the collision, and making false statements about the incidents during criminal, civil, and disciplinary proceedings.

The Court denied Okuley’s 2019 request for reinstatement, and he remained under suspension until his disbarment today. The Columbus Bar Association submitted a complaint in 2019 to the Board of Professional Conduct, charging that Okuley committed multiple violations of the rules governing the professional conduct of Ohio attorneys when he conducted business transactions related to his law firm while also concealing his suspension from clients and the public.

The board recommended Okuley be permanently disbarred, and the Court stated it independently reviewed the record and agreed with the board’s proposed sanction.

Lawyer Practiced under Suspension, Concealed Actions
Okuley’s brother worked at the Okuley Smith law firm in 2017 and 2018. In February 2018, April Cottle met with the Okuley brothers and hired them to represent her in a trademark-registration matter. Cottle corresponded with Okuley in April 2018, after his brother left the firm.

Cottle did not hear anything about the status of her matter until September 2018, when a secretary at the firm emailed her. Weeks later, Okuley was suspended. Nine days after the suspension, Cottle received an email from Okuley’s email address that copied his brother and the secretary. The email explained her trademark application was rejected, and he provided legal advice on steps to take. The email noted Okuley’s brother could file an amendment and billed Cottle for $300. Okuley later spoke to Cottle about her case and explained the legal options set forth in the email.

At this disciplinary hearing, Okuley denied sending the email, stating he instructed the secretary to send the email to Cottle from his brother’s address. His brother testified he never agreed to continue to represent Cottle, did not prepare the bill, and did not authorize Okuley to send emails on his behalf, noting that he left the firm months earlier. The board found evidence that Okuley sent the email, and that his interactions demonstrated he practiced law while under suspension.

The Columbus Bar Association noted that it sent four letters in early 2019 to Okuley based on its investigation of Cottle’s matter, and biographical information on Okuley’s online business profiles that still listed him as an active attorney.

Okuley did not respond to the letters and testified at his hearing that he was suffering chronic pain at the time as a result of a 2016 auto accident.

Lawyer Does Not Object to Disbarment
The board found Okuley had been previously disciplined, engaged in a pattern of misconduct, committed multiple offenses, failed to cooperate in the disciplinary process, and refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct.

The Court noted that after his disciplinary hearing, the board gave Okuley the opportunity to respond to the board’s intent to seek his disbarment and submit character letters on his behalf, but “Okuley did not avail himself of the opportunities.”

The opinion noted that Okuley committed ethical violations before and after his license was suspended. The multiple violations, combined with his failure to acknowledge his wrongdoing, made “permanent disbarment particularly appropriate,” the Court concluded.

2021-0231. Columbus Bar Assn. v. Okuley, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-3225.

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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