Off the Hook

When lawyers screw up, they usually swim free.

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Michael Vietti believed he'd been fleeced. He claimed that an asphalt recycling company in Cleveland owed him $90,000 in sales commissions, but it refused to pay up. On a friend's advice, he hired lawyer Harvey Morrison to file suit.

That was in June 1999. Over the next year, public records suggest, Morrison appeared to forget the case existed and failed to do any follow-up. When the company asked a judge to toss the suit in May 2000, Morrison didn't bother to respond.

Meanwhile, Vietti, who lives in Indiana, had made dozens of attempts to contact Morrison, all to no avail. Documents show that when he finally reached Morrison in October 2000, the lawyer insisted he had the case under control. Smelling horse dung, Vietti fired him and hired another attorney, who soon relayed the ugly news: The suit had been thrown out.

Furious, Vietti filed an ethics grievance with the Cleveland Bar Association. But if he felt cheated by Morrison, the disciplinary process would leave him in bitter disbelief. It took almost 18 months for his complaint to crawl its way to the Ohio Supreme Court. Another three months passed before the court gave Morrison a mere six-month suspension last summer -- with the entire term stayed, which meant he could keep working so long as he committed no similar blunders.

"A tap on the wrist," Vietti fumes.

Now an RV salesman, the 62-year-old Vietti says he could have retired this year if he'd collected on his suit. Instead, he'll need to work till he's 65 to gild his golden years. He blames Morrison and a disciplinary system that he's convinced coddles lawyers.

"I'm the victim in all this, and he gets off free and easy," Vietti says. "A guy like that, his license should be pulled."

It's a familiar chorus among clients singed by the misdeeds of their lawyers. Yet as light as Morrison's penalty was, it looks downright medieval next to the punishment received by most attorneys who screw up.

Out of the 7,061 grievances filed against Ohio attorneys last year, just 111 resulted in sanctions. That amounts to 1.6 percent -- a damning figure for those who rip the grievance process as sluggish, anti-consumer, and draped in secrecy.

"Getting through the system is harder than getting an appointment with the President," says Ralph Spyres. He and four other clients of onetime Beachwood lawyer Susan Glatki accused her of neglecting their cases in 1997. Three years later, the Supreme Court finally got around to disbarring her.

"If something had been done faster," Spyres says, "maybe some of us wouldn't have gotten hurt."

About half of the allegations of lawyer misconduct flow into 34 local bar associations; the rest go to the state's Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Fewer than one-third are deemed worthy of investigation. The lonely survivors that reach the Supreme Court take an average of two years to arrive, bogged down by at least five panel reviews primarily handled by fellow lawyers.

If the court's 28-member discipline board recommends that the court punish an attorney, only then do the findings see daylight. Otherwise, the details slip back into secrecy. Jonathan Marshall, secretary to the board, argues that the policy buffers attorneys from vengeful clients who want to hurt their reputation -- and their business.

"You have a lot of people saying, 'I lost my case, so my lawyer must be an idiot.' But that's not an ethics violation."

Critics counter that the rule acts as a double-edged shield -- while protecting lawyers, it hides past allegations against them from public view.

Consider former clients of Alan Belkin. The county bar began a probe of the Cleveland lawyer in 1998, after three people accused him of fumbling their cases. Clueless about the ongoing inquiry, two women hired Belkin in 1999 to sue their employer. Court records indicate that, after a judge dismissed their suit, Belkin neglected to tell them, squandering their chance to appeal.

For his purported offenses, Belkin received an 18-month stayed suspension in 2001. Last year, facing additional, undisclosed penalties, he surrendered his law license; he could not be located by Scene for comment. Nor could his ex-clients, who appear to have moved from the area -- evidence, perhaps, of how much time tends to elapse between allegation and sanction.

"You don't hold your breath," says Alana Shaffer.

In 1997, the Walton Hills resident and her husband charged that Bedford attorney Leonette Cicirella ignored the housing dispute they were embroiled in, leading to a judgment of $1,000 against them. Shaffer says they only learned of the ruling months later, when her wages were garnisheed. By then, the couple could no longer appeal.

Two years would go by before the Supreme Court hit Cicirella with a one-year suspension, along with an order to reimburse the Shaffers -- money they say they've yet to see. (Cicirella, suspended indefinitely last year after another client accused her of botching a case, has disconnected her office phone.)

The court voted to disbar 13 lawyers last year, while another 12 resigned with sanctions pending. Ten faced public reprimands, and 88 received suspensions. Against the backdrop of almost 40,000 lawyers statewide, such small numbers -- fairly consistent with those of the past five years -- may resonate only with the people punished.

Debra Dixon, disbarred a year ago after a probe into allegations that she siphoned $250,000 out of a client's estate, prefers to duck questions about her previous career. "I don't want to talk about it," she says from the Rocky River clothing store she now runs.

Other lawyers feel they're the victims. Longtime Cleveland Heights attorney Caesar Harris, indefinitely suspended last summer for allegedly draining $29,000 from the savings account of a mentally ill client, says investigators "were out to get me."

Glatki, the Beachwood attorney stripped of her license in 2000, voices the same beef. "I don't think I was treated fairly," she says. When asked why, Glatki -- who these days serves as a child-custody mediator in California -- huffs that she "didn't think she had to answer allegations that were so outrageous."

In a bad-is-good sort of way, such griping serves as a testimonial that the system works, according to Michael Courtney, head of the county bar's grievance committee. It also disproves the theory that lawyers go soft on their own, he asserts.

"That doesn't happen. Could happen. Doesn't . . . A lot of these things come from people whose names have a six-digit number after it" -- a reference to inmate IDs -- "who are more interested in harassment."

Jon Coughlan, chief of the state's disciplinary counsel office, adds that the misguided nature of most allegations explains why two-thirds are dismissed without investigation. "A grievance isn't about the fact that you didn't like the judge's decision."

Yet given the tiny percentage of claims resulting in penalties, skeptics contend that attorneys slip on velvet gloves before slapping each other. Scott Nelson, an attorney with the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen, notes that while non-lawyers take part in grievance reviews, they make up a minority on discipline panels. And while the Supreme Court can suspend attorneys before they pass through the review process if they pose a "substantial threat" to clients, it has done so only eight times since 1999.

Says Nelson: "The system is designed to be protective of lawyers -- overprotective."

It also reflects a reluctance to put consumers' concerns ahead of lawyers'. Nelson says that flaw could be fixed by airing allegations earlier in the process, preferably when the court's grievance board receives a case. "People should know what they're getting when they walk into an attorney's office."

As for the system's lethargic pace, it's the one topic that elicits consensus. But Mike Smith, chairman of the Cleveland bar's grievance committee, points out that an accused lawyer's refusal to answer inquiries and turn over documents often slows a probe. So does unearthing further examples of an attorney's misconduct -- findings that give investigators ammo to go for the kill shot.

"You want to get everything you can in front of the Supreme Court . . . to show you got a real wrongdoer here," Smith says.

Among claims that are investigated, nearly half involve lawyers neglecting clients. But officials cut a distinction between an attorney such as Glatki, who allegedly bungled several cases, and the likes of Harvey Morrison, accused of booting one. In staying his suspension, the Supreme Court weighed his vapor-lock in Michael Vietti's case against his previously spotless record during 40 years of practice. (Morrison declined comment.)

"If they screw up, you give 'em a chance to atone for what happened," Courtney says. "If it happens again, that's something else."

The state maintains a clients' security fund, bankrolled by lawyers' registration fees, that reimburses the casualties of attorney fraud. But it's handed out a miserly $400,000 a year since its creation in 1985, and a duped client can receive no more than $50,000. Worse, only those victimized by theft -- as opposed to clients who may have lost out on judgments because their cases were neglected -- are eligible, offering scarce relief to someone like Vietti.

In the wake of his suit's dismissal, he sued Morrison for malpractice in 2001. While they wound up brokering a settlement, the fact that Vietti's still working suggests he received far less than $90,000. He lets out a sarcastic laugh when asked if he can forgive and forget.

"No matter what anyone wants to say or do, I think that man cost me a lot of money."

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