The Ohio Supreme Court imposed a $6,387,990 civil penalty against two companies and their owners for engaging in the unauthorized practice of law in Ohio.

[T]he Court found that American Family Prepaid Legal Corporation and Heritage Marketing and Insurance Services Inc., their co-owners, Jeffrey and Stanley Norman, and multiple employees of those firms engaged in more than 3,800 acts of unauthorized law practice by virtue of their participation in a “trust mill” operation from March 2003 through March 2005.

The Court noted that despite the fact that American Family used sales persons who had never been licensed as attorneys to “advise” customers about their estate planning needs and persuade them to purchase a trust, and that other non-attorneys in California actually prepared the trust documents, the company attempted to legitimize its unauthorized law practice by passing each transaction through a Columbus attorney, Edward P. Brueggeman. Brueggeman seldom spoke with the customers who were purported to be his “clients,” and was paid a flat fee by American Family for every trust document he approved.

In its decision, the Court wrote: “From the start of his employment until March 2005, Brueggeman had an office within American Family/Heritage offices on Citygate Drive in Columbus. Brueggeman did not pay rent and used the supplies and services provided by American Family and Heritage employees to perform his role. Brueggeman did not hire or supervise the American Family sales agents. Brueggeman, after receiving the agreement, sent a form letter to the purchasers of the plans thanking them for choosing him to prepare their living trusts and their estate-planning documents. The letter also stated that the drafting process would take four to six weeks and invited the customer to call him with questions. … Brueggeman rarely, if ever, actually met an American Family plan member in person.” A formal complaint alleging that Brueggeman’s conduct violated state attorney discipline rules is currently pending before the Board Of Commissioners on Grievances & Discipline (Disciplinary Counsel v. Brueggeman, Case No. 08-090).

The Court wrote: “A living-trust package is often not needed and may even be harmful for persons who are without significant assets, who have simple estates, or whose estates may need court supervision. A basic living-trust package, such as those sold by some of the respondents, may likewise be insufficient or even completely inappropriate for those having more substantial assets and who may need specific legal advice or even tax advice to meet their needs. For this reason, we have repeatedly held that these enterprises, in which the laypersons associate with licensed practitioners in various minimally distinguishable ways as a means to superficially legitimize sales of living-trust packages, are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. We have also repeatedly held that by facilitating such sales, licensed lawyers violate professional standards of competence and ethics, including the prohibition against aiding others in the unauthorized practice of law. Today, we reaffirm these holdings and admonish those tempted to profit by such schemes that these enterprises are unacceptable in any configuration.”

In imposing a civil penalty of $6,387,990 jointly and severally against American Family, Heritage and their co-owners, the Court noted the aggravating factors that the respondents had been advised of and acknowledged the illegality of their involvement in the marketing and sale of trusts in the 2003 CBA consent agreement, but shortly thereafter resumed the same activities and engaged in thousands of acts of unauthorized practice that resulted in potential or actual harm to many of their customers for a period of two years.

See the Court's opinion.