Lawyer indefinitely suspended for stealing from mentally ill client, charging legal rate for lawn mowing
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The Ohio Supreme Court has indefinitely suspended a lawyer accused of transferring more than $147,000 from the accounts of a mentally ill client, although he and his law firm were only owed about $19,000.
The rest of the money—about $128,000—was the amount that lawyer Austin Roan Buttars of Dublin, Ohio, stole from or overcharged the client, the Ohio Supreme Court said in an April 21 opinion.
Among the overcharges: Buttars charged legal rates to perform personal services for the client that included helping her with household tasks, mowing her lawn, organizing her finances and doing her shopping. He charged his $250 hourly rate for some of the services and his law firm’s $125 paralegal rate for others, the Ohio Supreme Court said. On some days, he billed the client twice, at both the lawyer and paralegal rate, for what appeared to be the same services.
Buttars was convicted of fourth-degree felony theft in May 2019, and his license was suspended the next month on an interim basis. He repaid the client $62,500 before he was sentenced to two years of community control and 100 hours of community service.
Buttars began representing the client in May 2015 after his law firm accepted her as a pro bono client in an eviction matter, as long as she paid $20 per month during the representation. Buttars entered into a separate fee agreement with the client in which she would pay him $250 per hour for representation in any capacity, the Ohio Supreme Court said.
Buttar was working for the law firm that promised pro bono help as an independent contractor when he made the arrangement. The client indicated that she didn’t have money to pay, but she expected a substantial inheritance in the future.
Buttars charged the client for more than 30 hours of work at his $250 hourly rate in the eviction matter, which ended when the client agreed to leave the premises.
Buttars eventually formed his own law firm with another lawyer. After the client’s mother died, he and his law firm administered the estate. Total fees charged by Buttars and his firm for the estate work and the eviction matter were more than $90,000. Buttars also took about $57,000 of unearned money from the client’s accounts to pay his own personal and business expenses, the opinion said.
The state supreme court said permanent disbarment was not warranted, especially because Buttars accepted responsibility and showed sincere remorse. He had no prior disciplinary record, made a good faith effort to pay restitution, and was in compliance with a two-year agreement that he entered with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program.
He can’t be reinstated until he pays additional restitution of about $66,000 or he reimburses the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection for money that it paid the client, the court said.
Buttars did not immediately respond to a voicemail message left by the ABA Journal.