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Daily Court Reporter - News Supreme Court of Ohio suspends lawyer for profanity-laced abuse of paralegal

 

Supreme Court of Ohio suspends lawyer for profanity-laced abuse of paralegal

Dan Trevas, Supreme Court of Ohio

A Cleveland lawyer’s paralegal repeatedly recorded conversations of her boss berating her physical appearance and dress, and calling her a “ho,” “dirtbag,” and other obscenities. The lawyer’s explanation for his behavior was that he learned the lingo from rappers and hip-hop artists he represents as an entertainment lawyer, and he thought he was being funny.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently suspended Howard E. Skolnick for one year with six months stayed. The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct had recommended a fully stayed suspension. In a per curiam opinion, the Court wrote that the “longstanding and pervasive nature of Skolnick’s degrading verbal attacks” make a suspension that removes him from practice for at least six months more appropriate.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the opinion. Justice Judith L. French dissented without a written opinion, and Justice Mary DeGenaro did not participate in the case.

Employee Endured Harassment While Job Seeking

Almost immediately after a woman — identified as L.D. in court documents — began working as a paralegal to Skolnick in August 2011, he began to criticize and verbally harass her. He called her “stupid, “dumb,” “fat,” and “whorey,” and made fun of her husband and mother. L.D. soon began looking for a new job, and told disciplinary investigators she could not afford to leave until she secured new employment. She responded to more than 100 job ads, but her search was unsuccessful. She stayed in Skolnick’s office until January 2014 when she found a new job.

L.D. began recording interactions with Skolnick, which revealed a number of statements he made disparaging L.D. and an instance where he sexually harassed her and another female employee. Skolnick also falsely told an African-American client that L.D. did not like black people, which upset L.D. and forced her to defend herself to the client.

Attorney’s Behavior Leads to Settlement

L.D. reported she suffered from anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression, and poor body image, even after she left the job. A clinical psychologist reported that her symptoms meet some of the criteria for a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

L.D. hired an attorney who sent Skolnick a letter accusing him of sexual harassment, discrimination, and creating a hostile work environment. He agreed to mediate the claim and settled her claims for $300,000 — the limit of his insurance coverage — without denying the allegations.

In 2017, the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint with the professional conduct board charging Skolnick with violating the rule that prohibits a lawyer from engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law.

Behavior Attributed to Entertainment Client Influence

Skolnick and the disciplinary counsel stipulated to the rule violation, and the board accepted the finding.

The board considered aggravating circumstances that could increase the punishment the board recommends for a lawyer and mitigating factors, which could lead to a suggested reduced penalty.

The parties stipulated that Skolnick engaged in a pattern of misconduct and caused harm to a vulnerable employee. It also found he did not have a disciplinary record, and he presented evidence of good character, cooperated with the disciplinary process, and expressed remorse to L.D. for his behavior.

Skolnick presented some evidence of diagnosis and treatment for a mental disorder, but no evidence that those conditions were related to his misconduct. He also testified that after the settlement, he hired a human-resource specialist to revise the firm’s employee handbook and provide sexual harassment training to the firm’s staff and himself.

Based on past cases of lawyers sanctioned for making sexually charged and abusive comments to staff members or clients, the board recommended a fully stayed six-month suspension.

Court’s View Differs from Board

The Court’s opinion stated that frequent tirades made to a vulnerable employee who needed her job to support her family makes this case different. The justices noted they heard Skolnick’s “outbursts” from the recordings and his explanation.

“The only explanation that Skolnick offered for his extreme, obnoxious, and humiliating attacks on L.D. was that he had learned the lingo from rappers and hip-hop artists while practicing entertainment law and that he believed he was using the phrases in more of a humorous than a harmful way,” the Court stated.

The justices wrote that Skolnick’s verbal attacks of L.D. called for a greater sanction than a fully stayed suspension. The Court wrote the suspension is necessary “not only to protect the public and the dignity of the legal system but also to deter future misconduct of this nature by Skolnick and other attorneys licensed to practice law in this state.”

2017-1735. Disciplinary Counsel v. Skolnick, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-2990.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Date Published: August 23, 2018

 

Supreme Court of Ohio

 

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