Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Attorney Suspended for Mis-Spending Client’s Funds

The Supreme Court of Ohio today indefinitely suspended a Columbus lawyer for spending more than $8,800 of a client’s settlement funds that were supposed to pay off the client’s medical bills.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court suspended Stephen Darling from the practice of law for ethical violations. The charges against Darling related to his failure to pay his client’s chiropractic bills from settlement funds and to an unrelated criminal conviction for passing bad checks.

The Court’s opinion noted that when asked at his disciplinary hearing how he spent the misappropriated client settlement funds, Darling said they were for ordinary expenses like rent and food. But when pressed on the issue, he acknowledged that he had traveled to Florida and Aruba.

Accident Victim Makes Settlement Arrangement With Attorney
Joshua Lusk was injured in a car accident in 2016 and hired Darling to represent him in a personal-injury claim. Lusk signed a contingent-fee agreement, in which he would pay Darling 20% of any recovery.

Before hiring Darling, Lusk began chiropractic treatment for his injuries. At Darling’s direction, Lusk told the chiropractor he had hired a lawyer, and that all records and billing statements regarding his treatment should be sent to Darling. The chiropractor agreed that Lusk’s treatment would be paid from settlement proceeds. The total cost of Lusk’s treatment was $8,835.

The at-fault driver’s insurance company agreed to settle the claim for $14,000 and issued a check jointly to Lusk and Darling in May 2017. The settlement check was deposited in Lusk’s account. Lusk then wrote a $12,000 check to Darling, with the understanding that the attorney would take his $2,800 legal fee from it and use the balance to pay the chiropractor. Lusk understood that Darling would attempt to negotiate for a lower price for the treatment and return any remaining funds to Lusk.

Darling did not prepare a closing statement for Lusk, explaining how the settlement funds would be disbursed, and did not deposit the money into a client trust account.

Money Earmarked for Chiropractor Never Sent
Darling deposited the check into his personal bank account and then began misappropriating Lusk’s settlements funds for his personal use. Lusk and his wife contacted Darling, seeking the return of the excess funds.

Darling sent a $482 check to Lusk in October 2017 and another $500 check a month later in response to the couple’s inquiries. However, the attorney did not pay the chiropractor.

The chiropractor sent Darling letters demanding payment and stated that attempts to reach him by phone had been unsuccessful. In January 2019, the chiropractor sent another demand letter to Darling, who did not respond.

Shortly after, Lusk received a letter from a collection agency notifying him that his chiropractor sent the debt to collection. Lusk and his wife emailed Darling requesting all the documentation regarding the claim, the settlement, and the payments made on Lusk’s behalf.

In Darling’s eventual response, he questioned why a collection request had come up “years later,” and stated that he looked at his 2017 records and noted he personally delivered the settlement check to Lusk, who cashed it. The couple ultimately filed a grievance against Darling with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

Altered Checks Lead to Conviction
In an unrelated matter in May 2020, Darling deposited three checks over the course of a week to a Park National Bank account, in which he altered information on the checks. The checks totaling $5,835 were written from two separate closed accounts of Darling’s. When the checks were returned, the Park account was overdrawn by $4,250.

Darling was charged with two counts of forgery, one count of passing bad checks, and one count of theft, all felonies. In April 2021, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, which was suspended; payment of restitution to the bank; and 40 hours of community service. He was also placed on probation.

Attorney Accused of Ethical Violations
In June 2021, the disciplinary counsel filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Conduct, charging Darling with eight ethical violations related to Lusk’s case and the theft conviction.

The opinion noted that Darling admitted that he made four false statements in his response to the disciplinary counsel’s letter inquiring about the couple’s complaints. At his disciplinary hearing, Darling admitted he was not honest with the couple and spent the money earmarked to pay the chiropractor.

The board found Darling violated several ethical rules in the Lusk matter, including knowingly making a false statement during a disciplinary proceeding; failing to deliver funds that a client or service provider is entitled to receive; and engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

The board also found Darling violated two ethical rules related to the theft conviction, including committing an illegal act that reflected adversely on his honesty and trustworthiness.

The opinion noted that at his hearing, Darling attempted to frame his misconduct as a series of “mistakes” and did not admit his actions were intentional until forced to do so.

In addition to the suspension, the Court ordered Darling to pay $8,835 in restitution to the chiropractic firm in the next 60 days. If he seeks reinstatement to the practice of law, he must complete an evaluation by the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program and comply with any treatment recommendations arising from the evaluation. He was also ordered to pay the cost of the disciplinary proceedings.

2021-1232. Disciplinary Counsel v. Darling, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-870.

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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