Disciplinary Counsel v. Deters, 2020-1497

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM.
Citation180 N.E.3d 1086,165 Ohio St.3d 537
Parties DISCIPLINARY COUNSEL v. DETERS.
Docket NumberNo. 2020-1497,2020-1497
Decision Date10 August 2021

165 Ohio St.3d 537
180 N.E.3d 1086

DISCIPLINARY COUNSEL
v.
DETERS.

No. 2020-1497

Supreme Court of Ohio.

Submitted March 3, 2021
Decided August 10, 2021.


Joseph M. Caligiuri, Disciplinary Counsel, for relator.

Eric C. Deters, pro se.

Per Curiam.

165 Ohio St.3d 537

{¶ 1} Respondent, Eric C. Deters, of Independence, Kentucky, was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1987 and permanently retired from the practice of law in Ohio on September 17, 2014, following the suspension of his Kentucky law license. Following Deters's Ohio retirement, he transferred ownership of his law firm, Deters & Associates, P.S.C. ("Deters Law"), to his father and continued to work as the office manager and a client liaison for the firm.

{¶ 2} In an April 5, 2019 complaint, relator, Disciplinary Counsel, charged Deters with engaging in the unauthorized practice of law by giving legal advice to Clinton and Jillian Pangallo, who had retained Deters Law to represent them regarding an Ohio-based personal-injury claim.

{¶ 3} A three-member panel of the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law conducted a hearing during which it heard testimony from Deters and the Pangallos. In an October 2020 report, the panel found that Deters had engaged in four instances of the unauthorized practice of law by giving the Pangallos legal advice about their case: three during a meeting in which he persuaded them not to terminate his firm's representation and one in a subsequent telephone call.

{¶ 4} The panel recommended that Deters be permanently enjoined from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law and that we impose a civil penalty of $6,500. The board adopted the panel's findings and recommendation that Deters

165 Ohio St.3d 538

be enjoined from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, but it recommended that the civil penalty be doubled to $13,000.

{¶ 5} For the reasons that follow, we find that Deters engaged in a single instance of the unauthorized practice of law by giving case-specific legal advice to clients of the law firm that employed him. We therefore permanently enjoin him from engaging in further acts of the unauthorized practice of law and order him to pay a civil penalty of $6,500.

Deters's Conduct

{¶ 6} On September 8, 2017, Clinton Pangallo was injured in an auto accident while driving his employer's car. Recalling that years earlier he had heard Deters speak on a radio program and had liked his demeanor, Clinton called Deters Law to schedule a consultation. On September 22, 2017, Clinton and his wife, Jillian, met with Chuck Holbrook, an investigator employed by the firm. Clinton signed a contingent-fee contract, agreeing to pay the firm one-third of the gross recovery in his personal-injury case.

{¶ 7} In early October, Stephanie Collins, an attorney with Deters Law, informed the Pangallos that she would be handling their case. Collins left Deters Law the following month and informed the Pangallos that Dominick Romeo would be their attorney going forward. They later

180 N.E.3d 1089

learned that Romeo was not licensed in Ohio.

{¶ 8} On January 28, 2018, Clinton emailed Romeo to terminate the firm's representation. Deters emailed Jillian several times that night and asked to meet with her and Clinton in an effort to persuade them to stay with the firm. In those emails, he stated, "I can make sure everything is not only done right. But over the top." He also claimed, "We have a whole gang on cases. Ky. Ohio. Lawyers. Staff. Records requesters. Paralegals. Me. I just want to grab file tomorrow. See what has been done. And talk. * * * If we have droppedball [sic] I swear. I'll tell you we have."

{¶ 9} The next day, the Pangallos met with Deters and Holbrook. No attorney was present. During Deters's panel hearing, the Pangallos and Deters offered differing accounts of what had transpired at the meeting.

{¶ 10} The Pangallos testified that they did not know that Deters was not licensed to practice law when they met him, that he never said that he was or was not an attorney, and that they therefore assumed he was an attorney.1 Jillian

165 Ohio St.3d 539

stated that Deters referred to himself by his nickname, "The Bulldog,"—a moniker that he has long used on the radio and in social media—and told them that he would take care of things and get things done. In addition to discussing the value of their case, the Pangallos recalled, Deters advised them about the "stacking" of insurance policies, the differences between Ohio and Kentucky law on that issue, and how those differences could affect their recovery. Both Jillian and Clinton testified that Deters advised them to file a claim against Clinton's employer because it had higher insurance limits—and that he called their refusal to do so "stupid."

{¶ 11} Deters admitted that he gave the Pangallos his opinion regarding the value of their case based on his experience as an attorney and that they discussed the possibility that Clinton might be entitled to an award equal to the tortfeasor's policy limits. He also admitted that they discussed the possibility of pursuing a recovery from Clinton's employer—though he denied giving the Pangallos any advice on that issue and claimed that the issue of stacking insurance policies "never came up" in their discussions.

{¶ 12} Deters also testified that after the Pangallos told him that they were experiencing financial difficulties, he offered to arrange a presettlement loan through Barrister Capital and told them how the loan would work. According to the Pangallos, Deters advised them that the repayment of the loan would be contingent on winning their case and that they would not have to pay much interest, because their case would be settled within one month. They testified—and Deters acknowledged—that they relied on that advice in deciding to accept the loan.

{¶ 13} By the time the meeting ended, Deters (purportedly with his father's approval) had agreed to reduce the Pangallos’ contingent fee to 28 percent of their recovery and the Pangallos had agreed to allow Deters Law to continue representing them.

{¶ 14} After the meeting, the Pangallos obtained a $3,000 loan from Barrister Capital. Jillian and Deters exchanged several emails discussing Clinton's medical

180 N.E.3d 1090

treatment and the efforts being made to determine the limits of the tortfeasor's insurance policy. Deters opined that an insurer's refusal to state the limits of its policy "usually means high limits."

{¶ 15} On April 24, 2018, Jillian emailed a letter from Clinton to Deters terminating the firm's representation. In an emailed response, Deters asserted that he had not "handled" the Pangallos’ case and identified three other lawyers who had purportedly worked on the case. However, Jillian testified that she had never heard of two of those attorneys and that the third attorney had told her that he was not working on her case. She also testified that shortly after she received that email, Deters called to tell her that she and Clinton would still owe

165 Ohio St.3d 540

the full contingent fee to Deters Law on top of any fee they paid to a new attorney—which she understood to mean that they would owe Deters Law the full contingent fee in addition to any fee they would owe their new attorney.

{¶ 16} As of January 2020, Clinton's case had not settled and the amount the Pangallos owed on their $3,000 loan had increased to more than $10,000.

The Board Found that Deters Engaged in the Unauthorized Practice of Law

{¶ 17} The board found that Deters engaged in four instances of the unauthorized practice of law by (1) giving the Pangallos his opinion regarding the value of their personal-injury case, (2) advising them about the practice of stacking insurance policies and recommending that they sue Clinton's employer, (3) giving them his analysis of how quickly their case would settle, and (4) advising them that Deters Law would exert a lien for the full contingent fee on their final settlement if they terminated the firm's representation.

Deters's Objections to the Board's Findings

{¶ 18} Deters objects to the board's findings that he engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by giving legal advice to the Pangallos. Although he has admitted that he made some of the statements that the board found to constitute the unauthorized practice of law, he characterizes his actions with regard to most of those statements as "passing on information" and steadfastly maintains that he did not provide legal services or render legal advice to the Pangallos. In fact, he asserts that any staff member of a law firm could make the statements he made to the Pangallos without committing the unauthorized practice of law and that trial consultants, paralegals, and other law-firm staff engage in this type of conduct every day. For the reasons that follow, we find that Deters's objections are without merit.

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1 practice notes
  • Ohio State Bar Ass'n v. Beem, 2020-1580
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • August 19, 2021
    ...of professional judgment{¶ 29} There is no universally accepted definition of "the practice of law," Disciplinary Counsel v. Deters , 165 Ohio St.3d 537, 2021-Ohio-2706, 180 N.E.3d 1086, ¶ 48 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment only), citing Buhai, Act Like a Lawyer, Be Judged Like a Lawye......
1 cases
  • Ohio State Bar Ass'n v. Beem, 2020-1580
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • August 19, 2021
    ...of professional judgment{¶ 29} There is no universally accepted definition of "the practice of law," Disciplinary Counsel v. Deters , 165 Ohio St.3d 537, 2021-Ohio-2706, 180 N.E.3d 1086, ¶ 48 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment only), citing Buhai, Act Like a Lawyer, Be Judged Like a Lawye......

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