Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Columbus Lawyer Suspended for Mishandling Client Matters

The Ohio Supreme Court today suspended a Columbus attorney for 18 months with 12 months stayed for mishandling client matters, including providing an opposing party with her client’s personal information that the client did not want released.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court issued its second suspension to Christian Family since 2019. Family told disciplinary officials in 2020 that she registered as an inactive attorney and was closing her practice. The Court indicated the new suspension would take effect only if Family returned to practicing law.

New Complaints Filed Shortly After Prior Suspension Ended
In November 2019, the Court accepted a consent-to-discipline agreement in which Family admitted she committed professional misconduct and misused her client trust account. She was suspended for one year, which was fully stayed with conditions that included serving one year of monitored probation.

In December 2020, the Columbus Bar Association filed a new complaint against Family with the Board of Professional Conduct, charging her with misusing her client trust account and mishandling two client matters.

Attorney Ignores Client Requests, Court Orders
In April 2018, Kimberly Sutton hired Family to represent her in a domestic relations matter. In November 2018, Family told Sutton she was sending an associate to meet with Sutton before a December hearing. Sutton expressed concern about paying the associate to get up to speed with her case, and Family indicated the meeting would be at “no cost” to Sutton.

Subsequently, Family billed Sutton $125 for the meeting and later admitted it was wrong to do so.

In July 2019, Family received a discovery request from the other party in Sutton’s case. Sutton sent Family a draft response, indicating she objected to some of the requests because they sought personal identifying information. Family promised to remove any personal information and add Sutton’s objections to the formal response. However, Family sent the opposing attorney responses that did not remove the personal information or include Sutton’s objections.

The opposing attorney received a court order to compel Sutton to fulfill the discovery requests more thoroughly. Family did not comply with the court’s order, and the opposing attorney asked the court to sanction Sutton. Family did not tell Sutton about the order to compel or the request for a sanction. After Sutton discovered the filing on the court’s online docket, she fired Family.

The board found Family violated several rules while representing Sutton, including failing to act with reasonable diligence in responding to a client matter and charging a client an excessive or illegal fee.

Lawyer Changes Fee Payments, Locks Out Client
In May 2019, Muna Ahmed hired Family and signed a written agreement in which she would pay Family a $1,500 retainer and $500 a month for the life of the case. Family described the fee structure as a “subscription model.” While the written agreement called for a $500 monthly payment, Family advised Ahmed she only would have to pay $250. Ahmed paid the retainer in May and $250 in June.

In July, Family sent Ahmed an invoice showing charges based on $350 hourly rate for legal work and
$150 hourly rate for paralegal work. Family had never advised Ahmed that there might be additional charges, and the invoice itself noted the subscription clients were being billed at a flat monthly rate.

In August, Ahmed received another invoice with charges billed at an hourly rate, and the invoice noted all of Family’s clients were “being transitioned to hourly.” September and October invoices sent to Ahmed show charges based on an hourly rate, even though the invoice also indicated that subscription clients were being billed at a flat rate. Ahmed kept sending $250 monthly payments.

After Ahmed questioned the accuracy of her bill, Family scheduled a meeting with her. When Ahmed arrived for the meeting, Family’s office door was locked. Ahmed could hear Family inside talking on the telephone. Ahmed called and emailed Family to let her know she was outside, but Family refused to meet with her.

Family admitted the invoices were “extremely confusing,” and that she breached the agreement by unilaterally changing the terms. She agreed to refund Ahmed $500, and the board found Family charged an excessive or illegal fee and failed to notify Ahmed that a client may be entitled to a refund if the lawyer does not complete the representation.

Sanction Takes Effect if Lawyer Returns to Practice
The board recommended to the Court that Family be suspended for 18 months with 12 months stayed with conditions that included she working with a monitoring attorney for two years. The Court modified the condition by stating the monitoring attorney will focus on guiding Family on the practice of law, using her client trust account, and drafting fee agreements. The Court also ordered that she complete six hours of continuing legal education in law-office management. She also must submit to an evaluation by the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program and comply with any recommended treatment or counseling arrangements.

The Court also charged Family for the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

2021-0978. Columbus Bar Assn. v. Family, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-4054.

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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