Supreme Court rules that man claiming to be attorney be fined $5,000
Public Information Office
Published: November 20, 2023
A Cleveland man who assisted his cousin in pursuing legal action against a contractor has been fined $5,000 by the Supreme Court of Ohio recently for the unauthorized practice of law.
In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court found that Brett Carson engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when he sent subpoenas to banks in search of records and indicated on the documents that he was an attorney. Carson has never been licensed to practice law in Ohio.
Carson’s participation in an investigation by the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association of his actions was limited to responding to one phone call and replying to one email. In his email, he told the bar association this was not the kind of behavior he would “ever indulge in again.”
The bar association filed a two-count complaint against Carson with the Supreme Court Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, which found Carson had held himself out to be an attorney in two matters. Today, the Court used the case to clarify the types of evidence required to prove that a person has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when the person has not participated in the case.
Under that standard, the Court found the bar association failed to prove a second charge which alleged that Carson had accepted a $2,500 retainer to assist a woman with a domestic relations case.
Cousin Filed Complaint
In April 2021, Randa Jackson filed a grievance with the bar association against Carson, her cousin. She stated that he told her he was an attorney and gave her advice regarding a dispute she was having with a construction contractor. She also said that Carson filed legal documents on her behalf.
Christopher Klasa, an attorney who investigated the matter for the bar association, submitted an affidavit that detailed his knowledge of the case, identified a number of exhibits attached to the affidavit, and stated that they were true copies of the originals. According to Klasa, Carson spoke with a member of the bar association’s unauthorized-practice-of-law committee and sent an email to another attorney for the bar association. In the email, Carson told bar counsel that he worked with Jackson on her case, and they had “drafted it” without further explaining what “it” was.
Klasa also submitted copies of four subpoenas related to Jackson’s lawsuit filed with the Cuyahoga County Clerk of Courts. The subpoenas included an affidavit of service with what appears to be Carson’s signature, above the circled word “attorney,” indicating he was serving the subpoenas as an attorney acting on Jackson’s behalf.
The Court found that Carson engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by holding himself out as an attorney on those subpoenas.
Court Clarifies Evidence Standard
With the exception of Klasa’s affidavit and the documents identified in and attached to it, the Court rejected all the other evidence the bar association presented in its effort to establish that Carson had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
Because Carson failed to participate in the board’s investigation of the complaint, the bar association sought a default judgment, which is a judgment against a party that fails to respond to a legal complaint. Because Carson did not contest the bar association’s allegations, the Supreme Court Rules for the Government of the Bar required the bar association to submit “sworn or certified evidence” to support the allegations of the unauthorized practice of law stated in the complaint.
The Court stated that the form of evidence required in default judgment cases involving the unauthorized practice of law is the same as that required to support a default judgment in attorney-discipline cases. In a prior ruling, the Court found that the definition of “sworn and certified documents” used in attorney-discipline cases is comparable to the standard used in civil lawsuits when a party is seeking summary judgment.
The Court explained that in this case, the bar association provided documents in which Jackson and another attorney “attested” the information they provided about Carson was true. But neither of those documents were notarized. The Court stated it would only accept “sworn” statements if they were made by a person with personal knowledge of the facts, who swore under oath that the statements were true, and signed the document before a notary. The Court further stated that in order for documents submitted in support of a motion for default judgment in unauthorized- practice-of-law cases to be “sworn” they must be attached to an affidavit that identifies the documents and states that they are true copies or reproductions of the original.
The opinion noted that the board found Carson’s claim of being an attorney was not an isolated incident, but a pattern of behavior that lasted for months. However, the Court ruled that he was proven to have held himself out as an attorney on the return of service for four subpoenas that were served on a single day.
Based on the evidence, the Court fined Carson $5,000, half the maximum penalty, and ordered him to not commit further acts constituting the unauthorized practice of law. The Court also ordered Carson to pay the costs of the board proceedings.
The case is cited 2023-0426. Cleveland Metro. Bar Assn. v. Carson, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4036.