Submitted February 6, 2013
On Certified Report by the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline of the Supreme Court, No. 11-099.
Todd Petersen and Patricia J. Schraff, for relator.
Timothy H. Snyder, pro se.
(¶ 1} Respondent, Timothy Harry Snyder of Burton, Ohio, Attorney Registration No. 0065926, was admitted to the practice of law in Ohio in 1996. In an 11-count amended complaint, relator, Geauga County Bar Association, alleged that Snyder committed 18 violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, including charging excessive and nonrefundable fees in several client matters, as a result of his activities in connection with a paralegal support company and with out-of-state counsel. The parties eventually submitted detailed stipulations that for the most part state facts. Some of the stipulations, however, specify that the parties disagree on certain matters. The stipulations do not include any admitted violations. At the start of a hearing conducted before a panel of the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, relator withdrew five alleged violations. The remaining allegations were fully heard.
(¶ 2} Following the hearing, the panel concluded that relator proved three violations and recommended dismissal of the remaining alleged violations as not proved by clear and convincing evidence. The board agreed with and adopted the panel's findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendation of a public reprimand. No objections have been filed.
(¶ 3} Upon our independent review of the record, we adopt the board's findings of fact and misconduct and agree that the appropriate sanction is a public reprimand.
(¶ 4} Relator alleged that Snyder charged excessive and nonrefundable fees, improperly shared fees with out-of-state counsel, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, failed to supervise nonlawyers in a connected paralegal support company, and failed to disclose to his clients his relationship with the paralegal support company. At the beginning of the hearing, relator withdrew some allegations of violations contained in several counts and withdrew two counts in their entirety.
(¶ 5} The board ultimately found that relator proved that Snyder violated ProfCond.R. 7.3(c)(3) (requiring a written communication from a lawyer soliciting professional employment from a prospective client to conspicuously include in its text and on the outside envelope the recital "ADVERTISING MATERIAL" or "ADVERTISEMENT ONLY"), 1.5(d)(3) (prohibiting a lawyer from charging a fee denominated as "earned upon receipt" or "nonrefundable" without simultaneously advising the client in writing that the client may be entitled to a refund of all or part of the fee if the lawyer does not complete the representation), and 1.5(e) (permitting attorneys who are not in the same firm to divide fees only if the fees division is reasonable and proportional to the work performed, the client consents to the arrangement in writing after full disclosure, and a written closing statement is prepared and signed by the client and each lawyer). The panel recommended dismissal of the remaining original allegations in addition to those withdrawn at the hearing, and the board adopted that recommendation. We accept the recommendation to dismiss all alleged violations except for the three that were found to have merit.
(¶ 6} The stipulated facts and evidence relevant to the three proven violations demonstrate that Snyder, doing business as Snyder Professional Law Services ("SPLS"), promoted SPLS as a foreclosure-defense firm with "of counsel" relationships with out-of-state attorneys. SPLS's office letterhead indicated these "of counsel" relationships.
(¶ 7} Snyder shared office space with Performing Investment Corporation ("PIC"), a business that provided paralegal and support services for Snyder, including interacting with clients on the phone, compiling information, and contacting lenders regarding mitigation options. PIC employed a former Ohio attorney who had resigned from the practice of law in 2004 with disciplinary action pending. One of the stipulations acknowledges both Snyder's assertion that he retained full supervision over the former attorney and relator's disagreement with that assertion. PIC contracted with a marketing firm that assisted Snyder in attracting potential clients. Solicitation letters were sent to homeowners who were behind in their mortgage payments. Although the envelopes conspicuously showed that the enclosed letter was an advertisement, the letters themselves did not conspicuously include in their text the capitalized recital "ADVERTISING MATERIAL" or "ADVERTISEMENT ONLY." See Prof.Cond.R. 7.3(c)(3).
(¶ 8} As part of his representation, Snyder would enter into a fee agreement with the client and SPLS that provided for a flat fee that was deemed earned in full upon the opening of the file and provided that no refunds would be made. The fee agreement also contained a provision that stated: "Client has the right to terminate this Agreement by notifying the SPLS in writing. Fees earned shall be retained * * *." Snyder testified at the disciplinary hearing that the cost to the clients for representation ranged from $1, 595 to $2, 295. Of the contract fee amounts for out-of-state cases, between $200 and $500-depending on the state-would be sent to the attorney outside of Ohio who was listed as "of ...