John T. Willard, Hamilton, Ohio, was suspended from the practice of law by the Supreme Court of Ohio for one year, with the final six months of that term stayed, for professional misconduct arising from Willard‘s participation in a “foreclosure rescue” business in which he accepted client referrals and shared legal fees with non-attorneys who engaged in the unlicensed practice of law.
The Court adopted findings by the Board of Commissioners on Grievances & Discipline that Willard violated multiple provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct by partnering with the non-attorney owners of a company called Foreclosure Alternatives. The company identified homeowners against whom mortgage foreclosure actions had been filed and contacted them offering to negotiate a settlement with the lender that would halt the foreclosure process. Under Willard‘s arrangement with Foreclosure Alternatives, when a homeowner responded to the company’s solicitation, the company would forward a power of attorney signed by the client and information about the foreclosure action to Willard, who would prepare and file an answer to the lender’s foreclosure complaint without meeting or speaking with the homeowner for a flat fee of $150 that he received from Foreclosure Alternatives. All negotiations with the lender and virtually all subsequent information and advice provided to homeowners about their cases was provided by the company’s non-attorney employees.
The Court agreed with the board’s findings that in collaborating with the non-attorney owners of Foreclosure Alternatives in at least 28 cases, Willard violated the state attorney discipline rules that prohibit requesting a third party to promote or recommend an attorney’s professional services; aiding a non-lawyer in the unauthorized practice of law; forming a partnership with a non-attorney and sharing legal fees with a non-attorney. The Court also found that Willard was guilty of two additional rule violations that were dismissed by the board: handling a legal matter without adequate preparation and failing to pursue the lawful objectives of a client.
Writing for a 4-3 majority of the Court, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer found that an actual suspension from practice, rather than a fully stayed suspension as recommended by the board, was appropriate because Willard‘s ill-prepared representation and relegation of legal work to non-lawyers exposed vulnerable clients to an increased possibility of losing their homes. He also cited as an aggravating factor one instance in which Willard admitted accepting a fee despite knowing that a default judgment had already been entered against the homeowner and there was nothing that could be done to prevent foreclosure.
Chief Justice Moyer’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor and Robert R. Cupp. Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell and Judith Ann Lanzinger dissented, stating that they would impose a one-year license suspension with all 12 months stayed on conditions.