Ohio AG lawyer for plaintiffs disqualified from education lawsuit after giving advice to the defense

A Franklin County judge said Chief Counsel and Ethics Officer for the Ohio Attorney General Bridget Coontz provided legal advice to AG defense counsel in an email on which a court attorney was mistakenly copied

By: - October 11, 2023 12:27 pm

Franklin County Common Pleas Courthouse. Photo from Google Maps.

An Ohio Attorney General lawyer for state school board members in their ongoing lawsuit to stop a massive transfer of power over K-12 education from the board to the governor’s office was found by the court to be giving legal advice to the defense counsel, also a member of the Attorney General’s Office.

Chief Counsel and Ethics Officer for the Ohio Attorney General Bridget Coontz has been disqualified from participating in the lawsuit anymore after sending an email on Oct. 3 that included legal advice to the counsel for defendants, Julie Pfeiffer, the section chief at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, according to new court documents in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.

“In the email, Coontz offered legal advice to Counsel Pfeiffer clearly related to this case,” Franklin County Common Please Court Judge Karen Held Phipps wrote in an order disqualifying Coontz on Monday. “Coontz offered legal advice to Counsel Pfeiffer, which was directly adverse to Plaintiffs (Christina) Collins and (Michelle) Newman, who Coontz represented in this case. … Public confidence in the outcome of this case requires that Coontz be disqualified from any further participation.”

Seven members of the Ohio State Board of Education originally filed a lawsuit against Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Sept. 19 in an attempt to block an overhaul of K-12 education that was included by lawmakers in the state’s two-year budget this summer. Judge Phipps issued the temporary restraining order Sept. 21. Coontz filed a motion on Sept. 27 to substitute the Attorney General as counsel for the original seven plaintiffs. 

“Coontz assured the Court that there was no danger of a conflict-of-interest in this situation because the Office of the Attorney General maintained a complex screening process in order to eliminate any such conflict of interest,” Phipps wrote.

When a conflict comes up between Ohio Attorney General clients, an ethics screen is set up between the AG lawyers and is distributed to all attorneys and supervisors involved in the case, Phipps said Coontz explained to the court during an expedited briefing process.

“The screen directs the attorneys to restrict communications in one another’s presence and requires that physical and electronic files be inaccessible to either side,” the judge wrote.

Phipps granted Coontz’ motion in part, allowing Coontz to appear on behalf of the seven original plaintiffs as it related to the claims brought by plaintiffs in their official capacities as board members. Separate counsel was allowed to continue to represent Collins and Newman in their capacities as parents of children attending public schools.

“Less than 60 minutes after being granted permission to appear as counsel on behalf of the Plaintiffs in their official capacities, Coontz filed a notice of dismissal of those official-capacity claims,” Phipps wrote in her Monday decision.

The lawsuit was amended on Oct. 1 and Toledo Public School Board President Stephanie Eichenberg and the Toledo Public School Board were added as plaintiffs in the case.

On Oct. 2, the magistrate held a hearing and the judge’s restraining order blocking the transfer of power was continued, but DeWine held a press conference later that day saying he would move forward with the transition regardless. This led to plaintiffs asking the judge for clarification of her restraining order, and the judge setting a hearing schedule for that while postponing a decision on a full injunction until Oct. 20.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 3, the Franklin County Court’s Staff Attorney was mistakenly copied on the email sent by Coontz to the AG counsel for the defense.

“In the email, Coontz offered legal advice to Counsel Pfeiffer clearly related to this case and either the proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law being drafted by Counsel Pfeiffer, or an argument in response to Plaintiffs’ Motion to Clarify the (temporary restraining order),” Judge Phipps wrote.

During an emergency hearing on Oct. 3, Coontz said the email was supposed to be sent to another attorney in the Attorney General’s office who shares the same name as the court’s staff attorney. 

According to Judge Phipps, Coontz told the court the ethics screen “did not become necessary because she determined that a conflict of interest did not exist.”

“Coontz’s argument in this regard is absurd on its face,” Judge Phipps wrote. “The Court strongly disagrees that Coontz personally gets to determine when a conflict of interest has arisen. The main concern here is the appearance of impropriety, which is precisely what Coontz’s email created. … Accordingly, Coontz is hereby disqualified from any further participation in this matter.”

The lawsuit is trying to stop the Ohio Department of Education from transitioning to the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, which would create a cabinet-level director position and put the department under the governor’s office.

The changes would also limit the State Board of Education’s power to teacher disciplinary and licensure cases and territory disputes. Under this law, the board of education would no longer have various administrative powers or control over curriculum standards.

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Megan Henry
Megan Henry

Megan Henry is a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal and has spent the past five years reporting in Ohio on various topics including education, healthcare, business and crime. She previously worked at The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA Today Network.