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Court News Ohio

Attorney Suspended for Threatening Client as Intimate Relationship Ended

The Supreme Court of Ohio suspended a Medina County attorney for two years based in part for threatening a client that he had a sexual relationship with and hired as an “intern.”

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that Russell Buzzelli of Wadsworth violated 18 rules of professional conduct in cases involving three clients and his wife.

Many of the violations were related to the intimate, business, and legal relationship Buzzelli had with a client and his hostile actions toward her. The Medina County Bar Association filed a complaint against Buzzelli in 2021, charging the attorney with 23 ethics rule violations. Buzzelli contested all but one of those allegations. The Board of Professional Conduct found that Buzzelli committed 18 of the alleged rule violations, but dismissed five others.  Buzzelli challenged the proposed sanction, but the Court overruled his objections.

Attorney Represents and Hires Girlfriend
Mary Beth Foster met with Buzzelli in July 2017 when she was seeking a divorce lawyer. They began a sexual relationship. Then, Foster then paid Buzzelli a $6,500 retainer to represent her in the divorce and a misdemeanor domestic violence charge against her filed by her estranged husband.

At the time, Buzzelli was married. His wife, Gail, worked as an office assistant in Buzzelli’s law firm. In the fall of 2017, she had health problems and was not working in the office and spent more than a month in a hospital for medical treatment. Buzzelli and his wife both filed for divorce and separated.

While separated from his wife, Buzzelli lived with Foster while still representing her. Buzzelli also agreed to teach Foster the skills to work in a law office. Buzzelli denied during his disciplinary proceedings that he paid Foster for her work and described her status in the law firm as similar to an intern. Over time, Foster was involved in the office’s operations and had access to Buzzelli’s client files and personal bank account.

Along with representing Foster in her divorce and domestic violence case, Buzzelli filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Foster’s behalf against her estranged husband.

Violent Threats Made as Personal, Business Relationship Ends
The relationship between Buzzelli and Foster soured. In September 2018, Foster recorded a conversation at Buzzelli’s office in which he states that he has killed a human being, and is not “proud of that.”

He went on to say, “But there’s one thing that I have a capacity to do and to be, alright, is a killer. Now, one thing you don’t have and you talk big and bad, is you don’t have that capacity,” Buzzelli told Foster. “All right? You want to rat me out and tell people about it, you go right ahead.”

Buzzelli told Foster to stop coming to the office and changed the door locks because Foster would not return the key. Buzzelli twice reported break-ins to the police, suspecting either Foster or another former client were responsible.

A month after ending the personal relationship, Foster’s divorce became final in October 2018. She then instructed Buzzelli to take no further action on any of her cases. Although Buzzelli told Foster he would withdraw from her cases, he did not formally withdraw from the misdemeanor criminal case until two months later.

Buzzelli also told Foster he would voluntarily dismiss the federal lawsuit he had filed for her. But without Foster’s knowledge or consent, Buzzelli replied to a counterclaim filed in the case by Foster’s ex-husband. Buzzelli falsely claimed that Foster filed and signed the document.

The Board of Professional Conduct found Buzzelli’s recorded statements to Foster constituted the misdemeanor crime of “menacing” and that he intended to intimidate and threaten her. The board ruled that Buzzelli committed an illegal act “so egregious” that it adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law. In addition, Buzzelli’s filing of a federal court document in Foster’s name violated the rules against making a false statement to a court and engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. The board also found Buzzelli created a conflict of interest in his representation of Foster, and he failed to ensure she understood the professional obligations of working in a law office under his supervision.

Wife’s Return to Office Sparks Threats, Stalking Allegations
In the fall of 2018, Buzzelli reconciled with his wife and moved back into the family home. His wife soon began resuming light office work during her convalescence. Gail required supervision for her medical recovery, and Buzzelli made a place in his office for Gail to recuperate as he worked.

In March 2019, the Buzzellis went to Medina County Common Pleas Court to file a civil-stalking protection order against Foster. In the filing, Gail alleged Foster had stalked her at home and in the office. She claimed Foster also broke into the office, tampered with her computer files, stole documents and property, and damaged property. The filing identified Buzzelli as his wife’s lawyer. He represented his wife at the hearing to gain the temporary protection order, which was issued without Foster being present.

In April 2019, Gail called Wadsworth police when she spotted Foster in the parking lot of a retail store across the street from the law office. Foster was arrested for violating the protection order and jailed that same day.

A magistrate conducted a hearing to determine whether to grant a permanent protection order. Buzzelli, representing his wife, cross-examined Foster and asked her if she had hacked her ex-husband’s email during the divorce. The magistrate then asked if Buzzelli knew about the hacking claim because he represented Foster during the divorce. He replied that he did. The magistrate did not allow the question, and ultimately denied the protection order.

The board found Buzzelli violated ethical rules by using information he obtained from Foster when representing her to disadvantage Foster in a legal proceeding. The board rejected Buzzelli’s claim that his attempt to use the information was permissible.

Additional Charges Lead to Sanction
Along with the misconduct Buzzelli committed in the Foster matters, the board found violations committed by Buzzelli when representing two other women. Marlene Tramonte paid Buzzelli a $15,000 retainer to terminate her marriage of more than 40 years. Tramonte fired Buzzelli during the representation, questioning the amount of work he was actually devoting to her case.

The board found that Buzzelli charged for 13.75 hours of work he did not perform and charged Tramonte for phone conferences that he told her would be free. The Court ordered Buzzelli to pay her $7,860 in restitution.

The board also found Buzzelli failed to diligently represent another client he was appointed to represent. His lack of work led to the woman’s appeal being dismissed and required a public defender to re-open the case.

In addition to the suspension and restitution, the Court ordered Buzzelli to complete six hours of continuing legal education focused on sexual harassment and employee management, and to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

2021-1233. Medina Cty. Bar Assn. v. Buzzelli, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2470.

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