Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Law Firm Trio Deemed Vexatious Litigators

Three Cleveland lawyers have been declared vexatious litigators by the Supreme Court of Ohio today for filing an appeal in a divorce case that was contrary to well-established law.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court found the lawyers at the Stafford Law Company attempted on multiple occasions this year to appeal orders denying continuances even though a long line of decisions have held that a court’s denial of a continuance is not immediately appealable. A lawyer’s practice of immediately appealing such orders causes unnecessary delay to the administration of justice, the Court found.

The Court ruled that Joseph G. Stafford, Nicole A. Cruz, and Kelley R. Tauring are vexatious litigators, which means they now must follow certain procedures before filing cases with the Supreme Court in the future. The lawyers were also ordered to pay attorney fees to the firm representing the ex-husband of the Stafford firm’s client.

Trial Court Denies Continuance
The Stafford lawyers represent a Toronto, Canada resident who was previously married to a Cuyahoga County physician. The firm filed a motion to increase the spousal support obligations the doctor was to pay his ex-wife. The couple divorced in 2014 and the spousal support obligation ended in 2020, according to documents filed with the Supreme Court.

The woman first sought to change the spousal support arrangement in 2017, claiming a change in her medical conditions impacted her earning ability. After pretrial proceedings, the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court first set a trial on the matter for February 2019. The trial was continued several times, most recently for July 2023.

Five days before the July trial, the ex-wife sought another continuance, indicating she was unable to travel from Canada to Cleveland. On the morning of the trial, the court denied the motion for a continuance. The Stafford lawyers immediately appealed the denial of the motion to the Eighth District Court of Appeals.

On the same day of the filing, the Eighth District denied the appeal, citing a prior Supreme Court of Ohio decision for the proposition that a denial of a motion for a continuance is not a final appealable order.

The next day, the Stafford lawyers filed an appeal of the Eighth District’s decision with the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Denies Appeal, Sanctions Attorneys
Today, the Supreme Court refused to accept the case for review, and issued an opinion to explain why it is sanctioning the three attorneys and ordering the lawyers to pay the expenses of the lawyers opposing the appeal.

The Court stated that this is not the first time the Stafford firm has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the denial of a motion for a continuance is immediately appealable. The opinion noted three other times this year that Stafford, Cruz, or Tauring sought such an appeal. In September, the Court ordered Stafford to explain why he should not be sanctioned for filing a frivolous appeal. All three attorneys signed that response to the Court.

The Court explained that under the rules, a matter can be considered frivolous if the purpose is “for delay, harassment, or any other improper purpose,” and the Court can impose sanctions on the person making the appeal. The opinion further explained that an action is considered frivolous “if it is not reasonably well-grounded in fact or warranted by existing law or a good-faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.”

The Court found the appeal to be frivolous. The opinion cited 10 decisions from the Supreme Court and other Ohio appeals courts that found the denial of a continuance of a hearing was not a final appealable order. The opinion stated that the Stafford lawyers did not cite or discuss any of those decisions in its memorandum asking the Supreme Court to consider the case.

The firm only cited R.C. 2505.02(B), a provision of the state law outlining the types of lower court rulings that are final and can be appealed. The firm also noted one case, Thomasson v. Thomasson, a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in which the Court allowed for an immediate appeal of a matter in domestic relations court. The opinion explained the Thomasson decision regarded the appointment of a guardian ad litem to represent an adult whose competency was in question. In today’s opinion, the Court said nothing in the pending spousal support case “comes remotely close” to the issue in Thomasson.

The Court stated that the Stafford lawyers filed multiple appeals without acknowledging the body of law that contradicts their position.

“Further, the filing of a frivolous appeal works a particularized harm on the opposing party and the judicial system because the mere filing of the notice of appeal divests the trial court of jurisdiction, thus forcing the trial proceedings to come to an immediate halt,” the opinion stated.

By further appealing the denial of the continuance to the Supreme Court, the lawyers compounded the harm by extending the delay, the Court stated.

The Court announced further proceedings by the Court would be scheduled to determine how much the Stafford attorneys must pay in attorney fees to the opposing party.

2023-0907. H.R. v. P.J.E., Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4185.

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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