The Ohio Supreme Court recently issued a judgment that suspended a lawyer from the practice of law for two years.
The high court, in a per curiam opinion, adopted a recommendation issued by the Board of Professional Conduct that was admittedly “more severe than in comparable cases.”
The board recommended that Holly Lynn Bednarski of Barberton be suspended for two years with six months stayed on conditions due to her conduct in two cases and her inability to demonstrate a capability to return to the practice of law.
According to court documents, Bednarski accepted a flat fee to represent a client in a criminal case but did not enter a written fee agreement or have her client sign an acknowledgment that she did not carry professional liability insurance.
A case summary states that Bednarski did not respond to her client’s numerous attempts to contact her and failed to file a brief on his behalf, resulting in the lifting of a stay on the client’s sentence pending appeal.
In another case, Bednarski again failed to enter into a fee agreement or inform her client of her lack of liability insurance.
Bednarski removed herself from that case, but never moved the court to allow her to withdraw from representation.
“When imposing sanctions for attorney misconduct, we consider several relevant factors, including the ethical duties the lawyer violated, the aggravating and mitigating factors listed in (the Rules for the Government of the Bar), and the sanctions imposed in similar cases,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion on the matter.
As aggravating factors, the parties to the case listed a pattern of misconduct, multiple offenses, a lack of cooperation in the disciplinary process, the vulnerability of and resulting harm to the victims and Bednarski’s failure to make restitution.
A panel of the Board of Professional Conduct adopted those factors and considered additional factors, including Bednarski’s own testimony.
At her hearing, Bednarski testified that her husband handled the accounting and books of their law firm until their divorce, after which she “could not quite manage to do it by” herself.
She also stated that her bank closed her client trust account and she was not making enough money to support herself, so she began living in her car and with friends.
Bednarski also described a drinking problem that started while she was married and a period of hospitalization due to complications from the drinking.
“However, Bednarski has never been diagnosed or treated for any addiction or mental-health condition,” the court opinion states. “Although she agreed during a deposition in the context of this disciplinary proceeding that she would contact the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program, she never did so, because she wanted to handle her drinking problem by herself.
“In addition to Bednarski’s untreated drinking problem, her failure to cooperate with relator’s investigation was also noted by the board as a factor of particular concern.”
According to court documents, Bednarski failed to participate in a prehearing conference call and failed to fully comply with an order issued by the panel chairperson following that conference.
“She also failed to avail herself of relator’s offer to provide free Continuing Legal Education instruction, failed to follow through on her expressed intent to submit a posthearing brief to the panel, and admitted that if she were to resume the practice of law, she would need to ask for help and become more organized because her biggest problem was that she ‘had no organization whatsoever,’” the court wrote.
Considering the evidence, the panel recommended the two-year year suspension with no credit for time served during an interim suspension along with substance abuse assessments, compliance with treatment recommendations, payment of restitution and monitored probation.
“Both the panel and board recognized that the recommended sanction appeared to be more severe than the sanctions this court has imposed in comparable cases,” the high court wrote.
“The panel and the board concluded that a greater sanction is warranted in this case, however, because Bednarski is ‘far from ready to resume the practice of law,’ given her prolonged history of an untreated drinking problem, her failure to cooperate in the disciplinary process, her lack of the basic organizational skills necessary to handle the financial and management aspects of a law practice, her failure to take advantage of relator’s offer of free CLE, and her apparent isolation from family and friends.”
The Supreme Court agreed and, after its review of the record, imposed the board’s recommended sanction.
Justice William O’Neill was the sole dissent in favor of granting credit for time served during Bednarski’s interim suspension.
The case is cited Akron Bar Assn. v. Bednarski, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-522.