Court suspends Wheeling attorney for misleading clients about cases

By Lawrence Smith | Jan 7, 2011

CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has suspended an Ohio County attorney's license following an investigation he mislead clients about the status of their lawsuits.

The Court on Oct. 13 ordered a one-year suspension for Christopher R. Heller of Wheeling. The Court's action capped a two-year investigation by the state Bar that found Heller lied to seven of his clients about the status of their civil suits including five where he led them to believe he filed a complaint, but never did.

According the statement of charges filed against him by the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, Heller's web of deceit began to unravel on March 9, 2009. That's when one of his clients, Jason Shepherd, went to the Ohio Circuit Clerk's Office to check on the status of his personal injury suit.

For almost two years, Heller led Shepherd to believe he filed the suit, and on an unspecified date in February 2009, provided him with a purported copy. Upon discovering his suit was never truly filed, Shepherd informed management at Heller's firm of Bordas and Bordas.

According the statement, Heller was approached with Shepherd's allegation three days later. Though he initially denied the allegation, he later admitted to it, and was promptly suspended for two weeks pending further investigation.

Three days later while on suspension, Heller admitted he'd been dishonest with several other clients about their cases. On March 18, Heller self-reported his misconduct to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Bar's investigative arm.

The subsequent investigation discovered Heller lead four other clients, Rodney Underwood, Michael Rhodes, Ted Courtney and Herman Cain, into believing he filed their suits. According the statement, Rhodes and Courtney hired Heller to pursue a personal injury claim while Underwood and Cain hired him to resolve a breach of contract, and third-party faith matter, respectively.

ODC's investigation also discovered Heller mislead two other clients about their cases. Though he did file a complaint, he misled them into believing they would be receiving a settlement.

According to the statement, Pamela Payton and Linda Harris hired Heller separately in 2006 to pursue, respectively, a personal injury, and lemon law claim.

When Heller was unsuccessful in reaching an out-of-court settlement, he filed suit on Payton's behalf in December 2007. Though the court ordered default judgment against one of the defendants in May 2008, Heller stopped working on the case.

However, in early 2009, the statement maintains Heller informed Payton she could expect a $40,000 settlement. An investigation discovered no settlement was ever offered.

After more than two years of litigation, Heller was successful in reaching a settlement for Harris. He told her the company was willing to make an initial payment of $5,000 with the remaining $30,000 at a later date.

According to the statement, Heller, on an unspecified date, had Harris sign a "dismantled release" accepting the partial payment of $5,000. Unfortunately, Harris later learned the release she signed was for "full and final satisfaction of the case."

Citing the absence of prior disciplinary problems, his cooperation with ODC's investigation and expressing remorse for his actions led the Board to recommend, and Court accept, Heller's one-year suspension. According to the statement, Heller, 34, who was admitted to the Bar on Oct. 22, 2004, resigned from Bordas and Bordas following his two-week suspension.

In addition to the suspension, the Court ordered prior to reinstatement Heller undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and pay the $3,933.20 for the disciplinary proceeding. Upon reinstatement, he is to have his practice supervised for a year, perform 50 hours of pro bono legal service and take six additional hours – three in ethics, and three in personal injury – of continuing education.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, case number 35433

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