Columbus Bar Ass'n v. Bahan

Docket Number2021-0224
Decision Date14 April 2022
Citation169 Ohio St.3d 188,203 N.E.3d 634
CourtOhio Supreme Court

Briscoe Law Offices and Collen H. Briscoe ; Dinsmore & Shohl, L.L.P., and Nita Hanson, Columbus; and Kent R. Markus, Bar Counsel, and Thomas E. Zani, Deputy Bar Counsel, for relator.

The Steinhelfer Firm, L.L.C., and Tim Steinhelfer, for respondent.

O'Connor, C.J. {¶ 1} Respondent, Natalie J. Bahan, of West Mansfield, Ohio, Attorney Registration No. 0079304, was admitted to the practice of law in Ohio in 2005. On February 12, 2020, we publicly reprimanded her for violating Prof.Cond.R. 7.3(a) (a lawyer shall not, by in-person, live-telephone, or real-time electronic contact, solicit professional employment when a significant motive for the lawyer's doing so is the lawyer's pecuniary gain). Columbus Bar Assn. v. Bahan , 159 Ohio St.3d 479, 2020-Ohio-434, 152 N.E.3d 189 (" Bahan I ").

{¶ 2} In a four-count complaint filed in December 2019, relator, Columbus Bar Association, charged Bahan with four counts of professional misconduct arising from (1) her loud, profane, and alcohol-fueled outburst that she had directed at a former judge during a presentation at the 2018 Logan County Bar Association holiday event (Count One), (2) seven other incidents related to her alleged alcohol use (Count Two), (3) her failing to diligently represent a client (Count Three), and (4) her failing to cooperate in a disciplinary investigation and allowing her attorney registration to lapse (Count Four).

{¶ 3} A three-member panel of the Board of Professional Conduct conducted a hearing and heard testimony from Bahan and 14 other witnesses. At the conclusion of the evidence, relator withdrew Count Three. After the hearing, the panel unanimously accepted that withdrawal and also dismissed the charges alleged in Count Four.

{¶ 4} The panel issued a report finding that Bahan's alcohol-related conduct violated two rules governing the ethical conduct of lawyers, unanimously dismissed two alleged charges (one from Count One and one from Count Two), alleging violations of Prof.Cond.R. 8.4(h) (prohibiting a lawyer from engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer's fitness to practice law), and recommended that we impose a conditionally stayed, six-month suspension for Bahan's misconduct. The board adopted the panel's findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommended sanction.

{¶ 5} Bahan raises five objections to the board's findings and recommended sanction. Her primary argument is that her conduct at the bar association's holiday event is constitutionally protected speech that may not be sanctioned under Gov.Bar R. IV(2).

{¶ 6} With one exception, we overrule Bahan's objections and adopt the board's findings of misconduct. We also adopt the board's recommendation that Bahan be suspended for six months with the entire suspension stayed on the condition that she engage in no further misconduct—with the additional condition that she submit to a substance-use assessment conducted by the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program ("OLAP") and comply with all recommendations arising from that assessment.

Bahan's Alcohol-Related Misconduct

Count One: Failure to maintain a respectful attitude toward the courts

{¶ 7} Bahan and her husband attended the annual Logan County Bar Association holiday event on December 8, 2018. During the event, the bar association presented a "mock award" to William Goslee, who at that time was a judge on the Logan County Court of Common Pleas. Bahan, who had consumed alcohol at the event and appeared to be intoxicated, loudly and rudely interrupted the presentation of the award and called Judge Goslee a "piece of shit," an "asshole," and a "motherfucker."

{¶ 8} The board found that Bahan was displeased with Judge Goslee because he was involved with filing the grievance that had resulted in relator's decision to file the disciplinary complaint against her in Bahan I , 159 Ohio St.3d 479, 2020-Ohio-434, 152 N.E.3d 189. At the time of the bar event, Bahan I was pending before the board, and the hearing was scheduled for two days after the bar event.

{¶ 9} The board found that Bahan's "loud, profane, and drunken conduct," which was directed at Judge Goslee, violated Gov.Bar R. IV(2) (requiring a lawyer to maintain a respectful attitude toward the courts).

Count Two: Conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice

{¶ 10} In its complaint, relator alleged that over a nine-year period, Bahan had engaged in seven additional incidents of improper conduct while under the influence of alcohol and that her conduct violated Prof.Cond.R. 8.4(d) (prohibiting a lawyer from engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice). The board found that Bahan's conduct in three of those incidents violated Prof.Cond.R. 8.4(d).

{¶ 11} In the first incident, while attending a charity benefit with her husband in May 2019, Bahan called the Logan County Sheriff's Office to report that "William Branan" had stolen her vehicle. Approximately ten minutes into that call, a male got on the phone and informed the dispatcher that "William Branan" was Bahan's husband, that Bahan was mad at him, and that there was no car theft in progress.

{¶ 12} During Bahan's disciplinary hearing, Deputy Miriam Reames testified that she responded to Bahan's call. Reames was unable to locate Bahan at the charity benefit, so she went to Bahan's home along with another deputy. There, Bahan told Reames that she and her husband had had a verbal disagreement, that he had gone outside, and that she had thought he had left her at the party. At some point after Bahan called the sheriff's office, Bahan's husband took her home. Reames concluded that Bahan was intoxicated because her eyes were glassy and bloodshot and there was an odor of alcohol coming from her person and breath.

{¶ 13} The second incident involved a phone call that Bahan made to the sheriff's office in February 2017 to report that her teenaged son had stolen her iPad. While Bahan was speaking to a sheriff's deputy, her husband called 9-1-1 to report that she was "heavily intoxicated and causing problems." Sheriff's deputies arrived at Bahan's residence and learned that her son had left the home with the iPad. The deputies noticed that Bahan was loud and unsteady on her feet. She was also slurring her speech and had bloodshot and glassy eyes and a strong odor of alcohol on her breath. They concluded that she was intoxicated. Bahan yelled profanities at the deputies as they helped her husband leave the home. The deputies admonished her to calm down and repeatedly told her to remain in her home.

{¶ 14} No charges were ever brought against Bahan's son, but Bahan was cited for disorderly conduct—though that charge was later dismissed. The board found that Bahan engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and that she abused the legal system by reporting these two trivial incidents to law-enforcement authorities.

{¶ 15} The third incident occurred while Bahan was serving as a guardian ad litem ("GAL") in 2010. Bahan had attempted to make a surprise visit to the home of her ward's mother, but the mother was not at home. Bahan and her husband went to eat dinner at a nearby restaurant, where she drank one glass of wine with her meal before returning to the mother's home to complete the visit. The board found that by drinking alcohol before a home visit while serving as a GAL, Bahan engaged in conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Bahan's Objections to the Board's Findings

{¶ 16} Bahan raises four objections to the board's findings of fact, misconduct, and evidentiary rulings. For the following reasons, we overrule all but her third objection.

Gov.Bar R. IV(2) is constitutional as applied to Bahan's conduct in this case

{¶ 17} In her first objection, Bahan contends that her conduct at the Logan County Bar Association event may not support a finding of a violation of Gov.Bar R. IV(2), because that conduct consisted of political speech that is protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 11 of the Ohio Constitution, and was not directed "toward the courts." Specifically, Bahan contends that her speech at the event was political in nature because she intended to express her disapproval of Judge Goslee's courtroom conduct that purportedly led the bar association to present him with a mock award that evening. Relator, in contrast, argues that this matter is not about the freedom of speech but, rather, "the uncontrolled, self-indulgent, drunken behavior of a member of the bar." For the following reasons, we find that Bahan's objection is without merit.

Factual background

{¶ 18} At its 2018 holiday event, at which approximately 50 to 70 people attended, the Logan County Bar Association offered bar members and their spouses an opportunity to socialize over dinner, drinks (including alcohol), and some dancing. The event also included an awards ceremony.

{¶ 19} According to Bahan and other witnesses, she was not intoxicated when she arrived at the event, but she began to drink wine soon thereafter. Bahan testified that she had about three glasses of wine, because that is her "public limit." She did not believe that she was intoxicated, but she also did not believe that it was a good idea for her to drive herself home. Judge Charles Chamberlain testified that Bahan "was a little unsteady on her feet." Although her conduct suggests otherwise, Bahan denied that alcohol played any role in her conduct at the event.

{¶ 20} Witnesses testified that they did not notice anything unusual about Bahan's behavior until after dinner. Natasha Kennedy, a magistrate with the Logan County Family Court, testified that as the evening progressed, she observed some tension between Bahan and Judge Goslee.

{¶ 21} After dinner had been served, Judge Goslee was presented with a mock award that he described as ...

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