Former Ohio Judge Must Pay Legal Fee, Court Rules

September 29, 2006

A former Franklin County judge must pay $587,000 in legal fees connected to her failed defense against accusations of misconduct, a federal judge ruled.

Former Common Pleas Judge Deborah O’Neill, 51, owes the money because the insurance policy that covers all Ohio judges only pays fees if a judge is cleared of wrongdoing, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus said Wednesday. O’Neill had sued Kemper Insurance Companies, saying it should pay.

The Ohio Supreme Court suspended O’Neill’s law license two years ago after she was found to have violated judicial codes and standards in four of six allegations lodged against her. Under Ohio law, a judge may not serve without a license to practice.

The court’s Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline found that O’Neill was dishonest, lacked credibility and humility, and acted selfishly and vengefully.

O’Neill and her lawyers argued the insurance policy was ambiguous and that the insurer should at least pay part of the fees because she was cleared of some of the allegations against her.

The company tells policyholders in writing it will pay legal fees “only in the event that allegations brought against you are dismissed or discontinued without any finding of fault or guilt on your part.”

Sargus said O’Neill’s attorney wrote a letter to the insurer at the beginning of the case saying O’Neill understood if it “is resolved against her, she will be responsible for my fees.”

O’Neill is eligible to have her law license reinstated, but the Supreme Court says she first must pay the $46,701 cost of the disciplinary hearings, which is in addition to the money she was ordered to pay Wednesday, and show she has received a mental health assessment and counseling.

O’Neill, of Dublin, retired with a pension after working at the Franklin County Board of Elections to earn more time as a government employee.

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