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Attorney Suspended for Making Client Wait Nine Years for Settlement

A Columbus attorney was suspended today by the Supreme Court of Ohio for making his client wait nine years to receive a portion of her divorce settlement.

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court suspended Douglas Bulson for 18 months, with 12 months stayed. Once his suspension ends, Bulson must serve a year of monitored probation.

The Columbus Bar Association, which brought the complaint against Bulson on behalf of Amy Shepherd, had asked the Court to order Bulson to pay between $7,900 and $35,000 in restitution to Shepherd. The bar association presented evidence that she could have earned investment income somewhere in that range if Bulson had made the court-ordered transfer in a timely fashion.

The Court voted 4-2 not to grant restitution, stating the matter is best suited for a separate legal malpractice lawsuit that Shepherd can pursue.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody Stewart joined the per curiam opinion.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy also joined the majority opinion but wrote separately to state that she would impose specific conditions for Bulson’s probation that would give guidance to the monitoring attorney and provide greater protection to the public.

In a separate opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer agreed with the sanctions imposed by the Court but added that he would grant restitution to Shepherd. Justice Joseph T. Deters joined Justice Fischer’s opinion. Justice Jennifer Brunner did not participate in the case.

Previously Suspended Attorney Failed to Follow Settlement Order
This is Bulson’s third Court-ordered suspension. He was suspended for 10 days in 2005 for missing the deadline to register as an active attorney. In May 2020, the Court suspended Bulson for 18 months, all stayed, for neglecting three client matters, failing to return fees he did not earn, and refusing to cooperate with disciplinary investigations.

In September 2022, the Columbus Bar Association filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Conduct, arguing that Bulson committed multiple ethical violations in his representation of Shepherd.

As part of a divorce settlement, the Madison County domestic relations court issued an order that directed Shepherd’s ex-husband to execute a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) that would transfer $19,247 from his 401(k) account to Shepherd. The court directed Bulson to prepare the QDRO.

Despite repeated phone calls and emails from Shepherd, Bulson did not take the necessary steps to finish the QDRO. In April 2021, Bulson told Shepherd he would complete the order within 30 days. After making that commitment, he did not accept or return any of Shepherd’s phone calls.

Client Filed Grievance Against Lawyer
In June 2021, Shepherd filed a grievance against Bulson with the bar association, which sent a letter to Bulson. In October 2021, Bulson acknowledged that he delayed preparing the QDRO, citing a problem retrieving files from his computer. He told the bar association his next step would be to have the appropriate pension administrator “pre-approve” the order to ensure it could be accepted by the court and stated that would take up to 30 days.

Although he wrote to the bar association that he would take the steps to get the document preapproved, he did not immediately submit it. It was not until April 2022 that Bulson received an entry from the Madison County court approving the QDRO. A month later, the pension administrator acknowledged receiving the QDRO and told Bulson they would review the document to determine if it qualified under their plan.

Following the administrator’s review, the money was transferred to Shepherd in November 2022, nine years after the initial court order.

The Board of Professional Conduct found that Bulson violated several rules, including rules that required him to act with reasonable diligence in handling a client matter and to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of the client’s legal matter.

“Recognizing that the fully stayed suspension we imposed for Bulson’s prior misconduct did not adequately protect the public, the board concluded that Bulson’s misconduct in this case warrants a period of actual suspension,” the Court’s opinion stated.

Neither Bulson nor the bar association objected the board’s recommendation that Bulson be suspended for 18 months, with 12 months stayed on the condition that he complete continuing legal education focused on law office management and serve a year of monitored probation. The Court imposed that sanction.

Bar Association Sought Restitution for Client
In addition to the suspension, the bar association asked the board to recommend that the Court order Bulson to pay restitution to Shepherd. At his disciplinary hearing, the bar association presented a financial expert who testified that Shepherd lost out on investment opportunities because the QDRO was not promptly settled when first ordered in 2013.

The expert provided a range of investment fund options that could have earned Shepherd between $7,900 and $35,000 over the nine-year period.

The board responded that the evidence of lost investment income was “speculative at best.” It stated that the subject of lost revenue was best suited for a malpractice case that Shepherd should pursue separately from the attorney discipline case.

The Court agreed with the board. The opinion stated the bar association failed to cite any prior cases where the Court ordered restitution based on lost investment income as part of a disciplinary case. The Court noted that in most cases where restitution was ordered, it was to direct an attorney to repay fees collected for work that was not performed or for charging an excessive fee.

The Court stated that Shepherd seeks damages, not restitution. The opinion explained that the bar association, not Shepherd, argued for restitution, and a malpractice case is the best course to seek damages. The Court noted that because of the nature of disciplinary cases, Shepherd did not have a chance to present her own evidence documenting her lost income.

“Simply stated, an attorney-discipline proceeding is not a proper substitute for a legal malpractice action,” the Court concluded.

In addition to the suspension, Bulson was ordered to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

Client Entitled to Restitution, Separate Opinion Maintained
In an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice Fischer noted that in prior cases, the Court had ordered restitution to be paid by attorneys who failed to follow through with the work. In those cases, it was not because the attorney kept legal fees but to reimburse the client when the client had to hire another attorney to finish the legal work. He cited Lorain Cty. Bar Assn. v. Lewis, a case where an attorney failed to complete a QDRO. In that case, the attorney was ordered to pay the cost of hiring another attorney to complete it.

Justice Fischer argued that, in this case, restitution is justified “due to the extraordinary delay” and because Shepherd was deprived of investment income for nine years. He wrote that the board received enough evidence to decide on how much to award. If concerned about providing Shepherd too much, the board could have selected the lowest amount suggested by the investment expert, the opinion stated.

2023-0470. Columbus Bar Assn. v. Bulson, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4258.

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