The Ohio attorney disciplinary process has a number of steps and formal procedures to ensure the protection of the public and the attorney. In ensuring the protection of all parties involved, the disciplinary process has become quite complex and lengthy. Hopefully, this information will provide the public with a better understanding of what happens once an informal complaint is filed.
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1. Informal Complaint by the Client. The first step of the disciplinary process is that an informal complaint is brought against an attorney. The informal complaint is generally brought by one of the attorney’s clients or another attorney or judge. The informal complaint can be filed with the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel, a Certified Grievance Committee (such as the Lorain County Bar Association Grievance Committee), or with the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline.
2. Investigation of the Complaint. Once an informal complaint is filed, the Chair of the Grievance Committee reviews the complaint and will do one of two things: either summarily dismiss the grievance for lack of merit or assign an investigator from the Committee to investigate the allegations set forth in the grievance. The investigator then provides the attorney with notice of the complaint and is given an opportunity to respond to the allegations. Many complaints are dismissed by the grievance committee after the attorney responds. Investigation will generally include contact with the grievant and the attorney to get further information about the allegations. The attorney may be asked to supply records or other evidence concerning the transaction in question.
3. Grievance Committee Hearing. The investigating attorney will then present his findings to the entire grievance committee. Some grievance committees will then hold a hearing to determine whether the accused lawyer engaged in misconduct. At the hearing, witnesses, including the accused attorney, may testify. Other grievance committees simply determine whether there is enough evidence to support a finding of misconduct against the attorney.
Based on all of the above, the Grievance Committee decides whether to dismiss the matter or file a formal complaint. To file a formal complaint, the Grievance Committee must have a majority vote finding that there is probable cause that the attorney engaged in misconduct. If the matter is dismissed, the grievant and the attorney are informed in writing, and the grievant has fourteen days to request review with the Secretary of the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline.
4. Formal Complaint. If the Grievance Committee found probable cause of misconduct, it files a formal complaint along with any evidence it has discovered with the Secretary of the Board.
5. Review of the Formal Complaint. A probable cause panel of the Board of Commissioners reviews the formal complaint and filings and makes its own determination as to whether there is probable cause of misconduct. This probable cause determination is made in a manner similar to that outlined in Step 3 above. The panel then may certify the complaint or dismiss the complaint. The panel’s decision is mailed to the Disciplinary Counsel, the grievance committee, and the attorney.
6. Answer by the Attorney. If the panel certifies the complaint, the attorney has twenty days in which he must file an answer admitting or denying the allegations of the complaint. The attorney may also file a motion to dismiss, a motion for judgment on the pleadings, or a motion for a more definite statement within that twenty day period.
7. Pre-Hearing Conference. After the twenty days have expired, a hearing panel is selected from the Board of Commissioners and the hearing panel selects a hearing date. The hearing date will be within 120 days from the date of the answer. Within 30 days of setting the hearing date, a pre-hearing conference may be held to establish a timetable for discovery, to identify evidence and witnesses, and to simplify the issues to be addressed at the evidentiary hearing.
8. Hearing Docket. Following the pre-hearing conference, the case is transferred to the either the expedited docket or to the complex hearing docket. The docket to which the case is assigned depends on the complexity of the issues involved.
9. Evidentiary Hearing. The hearing panel then conducts an evidentiary hearing. Evidence is presented and witnesses may testify concerning the allegations of misconduct and any aggravating or mitigating factors. The parties both present recommendations as to the appropriate sanction for the attorney in the event that the Board finds that the attorney engaged in misconduct.
10. Hearing Panel’s Recommendation. Following the evidentiary hearing, the hearing panel may dismiss all or part of the complaint, if it determines by unanimous vote that there is not clear and convincing evidence of misconduct. There is no right to appeal such a dismissal.
If the hearing panel determines by a majority vote that there is clear and convincing evidence of misconduct, or if the panel decides to dismiss the complaint based on less than a unanimous vote of the panel, then the panel must submit a certified report with the Secretary of the Board of Commissioners. The certified report describes the facts, evidence, and recommendation of dismissal or sanction.
11. Review by the Board. The entire Board of Commissioners reviews the certified report presented by the hearing panel. The Board of Commissioners then may decide by a majority vote to accept or modify the hearing panel’s certified report, to dismiss the case, or to refer the case back to the hearing panel.
12. Final Certified Report.If sanctions are assessed against the attorney, the Board of Commissioners files a final certified report with the Ohio Supreme Court. This final report describes all of the evidence, proceedings, and hearing panel recommendations from the prior proceedings.
13. Ohio Supreme Court. Once the Ohio Supreme Court receives the final certified report of the Board of Commissioners, the Court allows both parties twenty days to file objections to the report. If no objections are filed, the Court will rule based on the final certified report. If objections are filed, the Court will hear oral arguments from both parties and then make a ruling based on the final report and the objection arguments. The Ohio Supreme Court may order sanctions against the attorney in its discretion. Sanctions include public reprimand, definite or indefinite suspension of license, permanent disbarment, or resignation.
This newsletter is meant for informational purposes only. Further information may be necessary for a complete understanding of the legal issues discussed. If you have questions about any of the information provided in this newsletter or about the attorney disciplinary process in general, please contact the Lorain County Bar Association, the Ohio Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, or your local bar association.
Lorain County Bar Association
627 Broad Street
Elyria, Ohio 44035
Ohio Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline
65 So. Front Street, 5th Floor
Columbus, Ohio 43215-3431
Ohio Disciplinary Counsel
250 Civic Center Drive, Suite 325
Columbus, Ohio 43215
Phone: (614) 461-025