By: Court News Ohio
On Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court suspended a Mansfield attorney who “actively avoided” paying a settlement to a former client who sued him for legal malpractice.
In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court suspended Byron D. Corley for two years, with 18 months stayed, on the conditions that he pay the nearly $25,000 he owes his former client and not commit any further misconduct.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against Corley with the Board of Professional Conduct in 2019, charging him with neglecting a client matter and refusing to pay a judgment that he agreed to begin paying in January 2014.
Personal Injury Lawsuit Dismissed In 2010, Rebecca Turner hired Corley to represent her in a personal injury lawsuit against a hospital, and gave him money to pay the filing fee for the case. Corley never notified Turner in writing that he lacked attorney malpractice insurance.
Corley filed the lawsuit in late 2011, but later failed to respond in time to discovery requests by the hospital. The hospital requested summary judgment, which the court granted in February 2013.
At his board disciplinary hearing, Corley said that after filing Turner’s lawsuit, he determined the case was meritless and she refused his advice to voluntarily dismiss the case.
Turner testified that Corley rarely returned her phone calls or responded to requests for information about her lawsuit. She said he failed to send her copies of some of the hospital’s discovery requests, and that she learned from the court, not Corley, that her case had been dismissed. She said Corley never discussed dismissing the case with her.
Former Client Sues Attorney Turner hired a new lawyer and filed a legal-malpractice lawsuit against Corley in September 2013. Corley did not answer and the court granted a default judgment to Turner. Corley appeared at a hearing on the damages in January 2014 and agreed to settle the matter for $25,000 by paying monthly installments of $200 plus interest.
After two months, Corley stopped making payments, and did not respond to attempts by Turner’s attorney to contact him. Later that year, her attorney closed his practice and she hired a new attorney, Angel Poynter.
Poynter sought to enforce the settlement. In August 2016, a court found Corley breached the settlement and ordered him to pay $25,564 plus court costs, interest, and $1,000 in attorney fees. Poynter explained to a board disciplinary panel all the ways she attempted to collect the judgment, including garnishing Corley’s bank accounts and income from rental properties.
The board concluded that Corley did “everything possible to keep Turner from receiving her agreed compensation,” and determined that by 2019 he had paid $7,102 through garnishment and court orders. Because of accrued interest and collection expenses, Corley still owed $24,981, almost the amount of the original settlement, the board stated.
The Court’s opinion stated it agreed with the board’s conclusion that Corley violated several rules of professional misconduct, including failing to act with reasonable diligence in representing Turner, failing to keep her informed of the status of her legal matter, and failing to inform her in writing that he lacked malpractice insurance. Based on his failure to pay the judgment, the board found he engaged in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law.
The board found Corley “actively avoided his agreed responsibility to make his client whole,” and that Poynter’s “aggressive collection efforts” were the only reason additional funds were collected from him. The Court stated that an attorney is expected to pay a debt “without a court order.”
The opinion stated that the final 18 months of Corley’s suspension will be stayed if he makes restitution of $24,981 to Turner and commits no further misconduct. Corley was also ordered to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.
2020-0221. Disciplinary Counsel v. Corley, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3303.
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