An Ohio attorney who stole from and overcharged a client nearly $129,000 was indefinitely suspended by the state’s highest court.
“The presumptive sanction for an attorney’s misappropriation of client funds is disbarment,” the Ohio Supreme Court wrote April 21. But because attorney Austin Roan Buttars accepted responsibility, showed “sincere remorse,” and was committed to making things right with the client, the court instead suspended him.
The Dublin, Ohio, lawyer first began working for the client, who suffered from mental illness, alcoholism, and depression, in 2015, the court said. His then-firm agreed to represent her pro bono for $20 per month. But Buttars entered into a separate written fee agreement, agreeing to represent her “in any capacity” for an hourly rate of $250.
The client told Buttars that even though she couldn’t pay him right away, she was going to receive “a substantial inheritance” from her mother when she passed away, the court said.
After the mother died in 2015, Buttars—who soon after formed his own firm—administered the estate and did various nonlegal, personal jobs for the client, according to the court. He helped her look for a new apartment, mowed her lawn, and went shopping for her. He sometimes charged his hourly rate of $250 and at other time the paralegal rate of $150 per hour, the court said.
In May 2016, Buttars transferred $10,000 from one of the client’s bank accounts for personal and business expenses. He told her it was a mistake and she should sign a promissory note saying she’d loaned him the money but he didn’t advise her to seek outside counsel, the court said.
In May 2019, the attorney was convicted of theft, a fourth-degree felony, was temporarily suspended based that conviction, the Ohio high court said.
The state disciplinary counsel filed a complaint against him for violating rules prohibiting collecting illegal or “clearly excessive” fees; entering into a business transaction with a client without advising on outside counsel; and fraud.
Buttars stipulated to the charged misconduct, including that although he transferred over $147,700 from the client’s accounts, he and his law firm had earned only about $19,000, leaving more than $128,000 that he had either stolen or overcharged, the court said.
He repaid $12,500 in January 2017 and $50,000 during his criminal proceeding, it noted, leaving a balance of more than $66,000, which included the $29,450 that he had been ordered to make as part of his criminal sentence, the court said.
Aggravating factors include that Buttars acted with a dishonest and selfish motive, engaged in a pattern of misconduct, and committed multiple offenses while representing a “particularly vulnerable client,” it said.
The state Supreme Court suspended him indefinitely, with no credit for the time he served under his interim felony suspension. It conditioned Buttars’ reinstatement on proof that he’d paid back the more than $66,000 still owed his client.
The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Buttars, 2020 BL 146971, Ohio, No. 2019-1722, 4/21/20.