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Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association v. Horton

Supreme Court of Ohio

June 26, 2018

Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association

          Submitted December 6, 2017

          On Certified Report by the Board of Professional Conduct of the Supreme Court, No. 2017-011.

          Tucker Ellis, L.L.P., Seth H. Wamelink, and Jon W. Oebker; and Heather M. Zirke, Bar Counsel, and Kari L. Burns, Assistant Bar Counsel, for relator.

          Debbie Kay Horton, pro se.

          PER CURIAM.

         {¶ 1} Respondent, Debbie Kay Horton, of Solon, Ohio, Attorney Registration No. 0033622, was admitted to the practice of law in Ohio in 1986. On February 24, 2010, we suspended her for two years, with the second year stayed on conditions, for settling clients' personal-injury claims and endorsing the settlement checks without the clients' authority and converting the settlement proceeds to her own use. Disciplinary Counsel v. Horton, 124 Ohio St.3d 434, 2010-Ohio-579, 923 N.E.2d 141. We reinstated her license to practice law on May 11, 2011. Disciplinary Counsel v. Horton, 128 Ohio St.3d 1225, 2011-Ohio-2386, 947 N.E.2d 174.

         {¶ 2} In a March 2, 2017 complaint, relator, Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, alleged that Horton committed 17 violations of the professional-conduct rules while pursuing personal-injury claims on behalf of a woman and her minor daughter. Among other things, relator alleged that Horton failed to make required disclosures to her client, to obtain the client's written consent to or acknowledgment of certain circumstances affecting the representation, to formally withdraw from the case following a disagreement with the client, to promptly deliver funds that the client was entitled to receive, and to maintain required records regarding her client trust account.

         {¶ 3} The parties submitted joint stipulations of fact and aggravating and mitigating factors, and Horton admitted to some of the charged misconduct. The parties jointly recommended that Horton be suspended from the practice of law for one year, with six months stayed on conditions.

         {¶ 4} The matter proceeded to a hearing before a panel of the Board of Professional Conduct. The panel found that Horton committed nine of the ten rule violations she admitted to committing, and it unanimously dismissed the remaining allegations. The panel recommended that she be suspended for two years, with one year stayed on the condition that she engage in no further misconduct, and further recommended that her reinstatement be subject to additional conditions. The board adopted the panel's findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommended sanction, and no objections have been filed.

         {¶ 5} Having independently reviewed the record, we adopt the board's report and recommendation and suspend Horton from the practice of law for two years, with one year conditionally stayed.


         {¶ 6} On April 13, 2012, Raquel Green retained Horton to represent herself and her minor daughter in a personal-injury case arising from an automobile collision. Green signed Horton's standard contingent-fee agreement, which provided for a fee of 33.3 percent of the amount recovered if settlement occurred before suit was filed and 40 percent of the recovery if a lawsuit was filed. Horton stipulated that she did not countersign that contract-or any of her fee contracts-as required by Prof Cond.R. 1.5(c)(1) (requiring a lawyer to set forth a contingent-fee agreement in a writing signed by both the client and the lawyer).

         {¶ 7} Horton also failed to make and properly document other required disclosures. She did not inform Green that she did not carry professional-liability insurance or have her sign a written acknowledgment of that fact, as required by Prof Cond.R. 1.4(c) (requiring a lawyer to inform the client if the lawyer does not maintain professional-liability insurance and to obtain a signed acknowledgment of that notice from the client). And although Horton orally informed Green that she intended to engage another attorney to serve as co-counsel, the terms of that relationship were never reduced to a writing that was signed by Green and the other attorney, as required by Prof Cond.R. 1.5(e)(2) (prohibiting certain fee divisions unless the lawyers have made certain factual disclosures to the client and received the client's written consent). Moreover, Horton admitted that she did not make these required disclosures to any of her other clients.

         {¶ 8} Horton filed a lawsuit on behalf of Green and Green's daughter on April 4, 2014. She voluntarily dismissed that suit in January 2015 and refiled it the next month. At the final pretrial conference in January 2016, Green agreed to settle her daughter's claim for the ...

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