Decided: May 7, 2014

Misconduct:  Unauthorized practice of law

Citation: Cleveland Metro. Bar Assn. v. Wooten, 139 Ohio St.3d 177, 2014-Ohio-1907

Discipline:  Injunction and civil penalty

Derek Wooten (a non-lawyer) and Aaron, Derek, Carter & Steen, L.L.C. (ADCS) were fined $282,500 by the Supreme Court – $2,500 for each of the 113 times they engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Wooten is a co-owner of ADCS, a collections company. Before founding ADCS, Wooten worked for another company pursuing collections. He testified that at his previous company, he filed collection actions on behalf of his clients in municipal and common pleas courts and that he personally signed the complaints.

In 2008, the Akron Bar Association sent a cease-and-desist notice to Wooten notifying him that he was practicing law without a license and instructing him to stop.

In 2009, Wooten started at ADCS and filed complaints in Cleveland, Rocky River, Bedford, Willoughby, Akron, and Euclid small claims or municipal courts. Wooten admitted that in early 2009 he knew that signing a small-claims complaint on behalf of his clients was problematic. He also claimed the practice was discontinued between March and May 2009.

On at least 13 occasions, Wooten attached to the complaint a photocopy of the business card of an attorney that listed ADCS as the attorney’s business and listed the same address as ADCS’s address. Underneath the attorney’s name was the phrase “Legal Services with a Personal Touch” and along the top margin the card stated “Bankruptcy Criminal Traffic Garnishment Personal Injury.”

The unauthorized practice of law includes the provision of legal services for another by a person not admitted to the practice of law. The practice of law encompasses the drafting and preparation of pleadings filed in the courts of Ohio.

The court found the evidence clearly demonstrated that Wooten prepared and filed legal pleadings in a large number of cases (113) and therefore engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in violation of Gov. Bar R. VII(2)(A)(1).

The Court issued an injunction prohibiting Wooten and ADCS from further engaging in this conduct. In considering a monetary penalty the Court considered the following aggravating factors:

  • Wooten’s “minimal cooperation in the investigation”
  • Continuation of the practice after the letter from the Akron Bar Association
  • Many of the defendants in the suits filed by respondents had default judgments entered against them
  • Benefits Wooten received in the form of a portion of the amount collected

The Court found $2,500 per offense a fair penalty but specifically noted this amount should not be considered as precedent, especially in cases in which only a few acts were committed.