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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Cleveland Lawyer Suspended for Lying to Court About Plea Deal

The Supreme Court of Ohio today suspended a Cleveland lawyer from the practice of law for two years, with six months stayed, for among other things improperly submitting a plea deal that resulted in an additional 18 months in jail for a client.

Samuel Smith II was previously suspended by the Supreme Court in December 2017 for 18 months, with one year stayed with the condition that he commit no further misconduct. The Court today ruled that Smith violated ethical rules when representing four clients, some of which occurred while under suspension.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody Stewart joined the per curiam opinion imposing the two-year suspension. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Patrick F. Fischer and Jennifer Brunner stated they would impose an additional 12-month suspension for failing to abide by the terms of the 2017 suspension.

Client Disputes Accepting Plea Deal
In 2017, Smith was appointed to represented Stacy Lattimore, who was charged with multiple crimes stemming from department store thefts. Smith met with Lattimore at the Cuyahoga County Jail, where Lattimore was serving a sentence for a separate offense.

During the meeting, Smith presented Lattimore with a standard plea-in-absentia form by which she could change her pleas in several cases from not guilty to guilty or no contest. Lattimore did not sign the document.

Later at his office, Smith signed Lattimore’s name to the document, falsely swearing that Lattimore signed it in his presence. A plea-in-absentia form can be signed by an attorney if the lawyer indicates that the client verbally granted that authority. Smith did not indicate that he had signed Lattimore’s name or had her consent to do so.

He then filed the plea in Shaker Heights Municipal Court. Neither Smith nor Lattimore were present when the municipal court considered the plea-in-absentia form, which stated that Lattimore agreed to plead no contest to one of the charges, and guilty to several others. The court sentenced Lattimore to an additional 540 days in jail, fined her $1,850, and permanently banned her from entering certain retail establishments.

When Smith learned of the sentence, he did not contact Lattimore. Lattimore stated she learned of the additional sanctions when she was mailed a copy in jail. Lattimore maintained she did not agree to the plea deal, and she contacted the public defender’s office for assistance in changing her plea.

Disputed Agreement Leads to New Rule Violation Complaint
Lattimore’s complaints about Smith, and the complaints from three other Smith clients, led the Office of Disciplinary Counsel to charge Smith with violations of the rules governing the professional conduct of Ohio attorneys. In addition to rule violations regarding Lattimore’s conviction, Smith was charged with failing to act with diligence on a client’s behalf, failing to provide competent representation, failing to take reasonable steps to protect his clients, and failing to comply with the requirements of his previous suspension order.

Smith admitted to seven of the violations and disputed the others. A three-member panel of the Board of Professional Conduct conducted a hearing on the complaints and found Smith committed 15 of 19 original charges of rule violations.

At the hearing, Lattimore and Smith offered conflicting testimony regarding Lattimore’s change of pleas. Lattimore stated that she refused to sign the document, and did not give Smith permission to sign it for her. She testified that she told him that she no longer wanted him to represent her.

Smith testified that he signed the form with Lattimore’s authorization.

The hearing panel was unable to determine if Lattimore was “a serial offender who authorized the plea in absentia to test the waters on sentencing or an innocent who was unaccountably wronged by her lawyer.” Because of the uncertainty, the panel dismissed the charge that Smith failed to abide by his client’s decision as to the plea to enter.

However, the panel found, and the board agreed, that by signing and notarizing the form without noting that he signed on Lattimore’s behalf, Smith knowingly made a false statement to the municipal court and engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
Based on the misconduct in Lattimore’s case and the three others, the board recommended Smith’s suspension to the Court.

Smith objected to the proposed sanctions, arguing that a fully stayed two-year suspension was appropriate. The objections triggered oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

Lawyer Challenges Charges
Among Smith’s objections to his charges was that he did not commit any misconduct when representing Lattimore. He argued that any finding of a rule violation was “inconsistent” with the board’s dismissal of the charge for entering Lattimore’s plea.

The Court’s opinion stated that Smith admitted he notarized the form without witnessing Lattimore signing it. He also notarized the form without telling the municipal court that he signed Lattimore’s name. The Court ruled Smith committed the charged violations.

When considering the sanctions for Smith’s violations, the Court noted that Smith represented Lattimore after he was charged with rule violations in his prior disciplinary case and before the Court suspended him. The opinion noted that at the time he represented Lattimore, Smith had signed a “consent-to-discipline” agreement, in which he admitted making false statements to a court.

The opinion stated that “there can be no doubt Smith continued to engage in dishonesty and make misrepresentations to a court after he admitted to similar rule violations in his prior disciplinary case.”

The Court stayed the final six months of Smith’s suspension with the condition that he commit no further misconduct and pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings. If Smith seeks reinstatement, he must complete nine hours of continuing legal education in law office management and client-trust-account management. He also will be required to work with a monitoring attorney for one year.

2021-0448. Disciplinary Counsel v. Smith, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-840.

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