Login | October 23, 2020

Toledo-area lawyer’s false and inflammatory accusations leads to suspension

DAN TREVAS
Supreme Court
Public Information Office

Published: October 15, 2020

The Ohio Supreme Court recently suspended a Lucas County attorney for two years, with six months stayed, for levying false and inflammatory accusations against opposing attorneys, a magistrate, parties in two of his cases, and disciplinary officials hearing the complaints against him.
In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court suspended Thomas A. Yoder of Holland for violating several of the rules governing the professional conduct of Ohio lawyers. The offenses included calling a magistrate’s decision “insane,” and not what “a normal, competent magistrate would have done.”
Custody Case Draw Complaints
The Toledo Bar Association filed a complaint against Yoder with the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct in 2019 based on allegedly false statements by Yoder and for threatening letters he sent to two witnesses he intended to call during his disciplinary hearings.
In a custody matter, Yoder began representing two grandparents in 2015. The couple was seeking to obtain custody of their minor grandchildren. Codi Dowe, a nurse and cousin to the three children, sought to intervene in the case before the Lucas County Juvenile Court. She filed for emergency custody of the children.
A magistrate awarded Dowe temporary custody of the children, but the parties later agreed to return the children to the grandparents’ home. As the custody dispute continued, the relationship between the parties remained contentious. In 2017, Yoder filed a motion to terminate Dowe’s visitation rights with the children, alleging that Dowe made unfounded allegations about the grandparents, which caused great emotional harm to one of the children.
Yoder consistently in court documents and exchanges with Dowe accused her of having mental health problems and stated that she was “delusional.” Yoder wrote to the professional nursing boards in Ohio and Michigan, requesting they investigate Dowe’s mental condition and fitness to practice as a nurse. He sent copies of several of the letters to her.
During his disciplinary hearing, a three-member board panel found that Yoder had no factual basis to support his allegations. While Dowe may have been misinformed about some matters regarding the custody case, based on her hearing testimony, the panel found her to be “anything other than sincere, intelligent, and believable.”
The board concluded that Yoder’s admitted goal was to remove Dowe from the children’s lives and to get her “off [his] butt,” and that his allegations were unfounded. The board found that by reporting Dowe to the nursing organizations, Yoder violated the rule against presenting allegations of professional misconduct solely to obtain an advantage in a civil legal matter.
Lawyer Disparages Magistrate
Yoder reacted to the magistrate’s 2015 order granting Dowe emergency custody by calling it “the most absolutely insane decision [he had] ever encountered in almost 40 years.” During the course of the custody matter, he accused the magistrate of lying about communications with a caseworker and guardian ad litem who had been appointed to represent the best interest of the children. He suggested to the juvenile court that the magistrate could not be objective and should withdraw from the case.
While the magistrate did not believe he displayed any bias, he agreed with the presiding juvenile judge to reassign the case in 2017 to another magistrate. Even after the case was transferred, Yoder continued to voice his displeasure with the original magistrate in court filings.
The panel found that there was a legitimate disagreement regarding the magistrate’s findings in the custody hearing, but that there was no reasonable basis to believe the magistrate lied. The board found Yoder violated the professional conduct rules by making statements about a court official that were undignified and degrading to the courts.
The board also found Yoder violated other rules during the custody dispute and the subsequent disciplinary investigation, including making a false statement to a court; engaging in conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice; and engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
Lawyer Lambasts Opposing Attorney during Protracted Contract Dispute
In 2010, Steven Thomas contracted to purchase a home, but several months later, discovered the property was subject to a mortgage that was not disclosed in the land contract. Thomas and his wife, Lisa, hired attorney Fan Zhang to represent them, and the seller hired Yoder to represent him.
Zhang sent two letters to Yoder requesting documents, then notified Yoder that the Thomases would file a lawsuit if Yoder did not provide certain documents. Yoder responded to Zhang, telling Zhang not to “threaten” him and began accusing Zhang of prolonging the contract dispute in order to increase the legal fees he received from the couple.
After the Thomases sued the seller, Yoder stated that Zhang “apparently does not understand the land contract process.” He called Zhang a “complete idiot,” and after Zhang stopped representing the couple in 2017, he sent them a note telling them that Zhang lied to them so he could file the lawsuit.
In a 2018 letter to the couple’s new lawyer, Yoder called Lisa Thomas a “very ignorant, troubled woman,” “a liar,” and “an idiot.”
The board found that Yoder’s assertions about Lisa Thomas and Zhang were without basis and frivolous. The board noted the couple prevailed in trial court against the seller, and the decision was affirmed on appeal. The board found Yoder violated several more rules by his behavior.
After the bar association filed its complaint with the board against Yoder, he sent letters to Codi Dowe’s father, stating that Dowe’s parents would have to testify at his upcoming disciplinary hearing. He told them they would have to answer his questions under oath and warned that intentionally lying would violate court orders. He suggested they hire an attorney to advise them “as to the ramifications of your testimony.”
Yoder sent a similar letter to the Thomases. The board found the letters served no substantial purpose other than to “strike fear in, embarrass, harass, or burden” the recipients with the costs of hiring lawyers.
The board proposed that the Supreme Court suspend Yoder for two years with one year stayed with the conditions that he complete an evaluation by the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program and complete any recommendations from the evaluation.
Supreme Court Increased Sanction
Yoder objected to the findings that he violated the rules. The Court’s opinion described his 112-page response as “rambling” and that he repeatedly maintained the decisions in the cases were wrongly decided. The Court noted that the issue was not whether Yoder’s legal positions were correct, but how he conducted himself in contentious litigation and in the face of adverse rulings.
“Indeed the record demonstrates that over the last eight years, Yoder has been unable or unwilling to address his frustrations in the underlying cases – be they adverse court rulings, perceived criticism of his own conduct, or his own perceptions that others are performing incompetently – in a concise, rational, and professional manner,” the opinion stated.
The Court noted that staying the second year of the two-year suspension would have been appropriate had Yoder’s misconduct been limited to the behavior in the two cases. But Yoder continued his attacks of those involved during his disciplinary matter, including the bar association’s lawyer and the board member who drafted the board’s report.
“Consequently, we believe that a more severe sanction is necessary to protect the public and to convey that Yoder’s conduct will not be tolerated going forward,” the Court concluded.
The Court also stated that Yoder’s stay will be lifted if he engages in further misconduct, and the Court charged Yoder with the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.
The case is cited 2020-0228. Toledo Bar Assn. v. Yoder, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-4775.


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