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Appleton attorney who allegedly beat his wife, kids and abused his legal assistant had OLR hearing Wednesday

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//September 12, 2023//

Steven D. Johnson

Steven D. Johnson

Appleton attorney who allegedly beat his wife, kids and abused his legal assistant had OLR hearing Wednesday

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//September 12, 2023//

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On Wednesday at 9:45 a.m. the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments for an Office of Lawyer Regulation case (22AP11-D) against Marquette University Law School alum Attorney Steven D. Johnson.

According to court documents, litigants are awaiting the Court’s decision.

According to the complaint obtained by the Wisconsin Law Journal, Johnson’s disciplinary history includes a 2008 private reprimand for being convicted of misdemeanor battery that stemmed from a domestic incident involving his wife.

Also according to the complaint, Johnson received a public reprimand for being convicted of one count of felony child abuse, recklessly causing harm, that related to an incident occurring at Johnson’s home involving his 12-year-old son in 2011.

The compliant also notes a pattern of alleged “abusive and harassing” behavior toward his former paralegal and legal assistants.

According to Johnson’s website, he is a solo practitioner at the Appleton-based Johnson Law Firm.

The State Bar of Wisconsin’s website says, as of Sept. 12, Johnson remains in good standing with the State Bar.

In August of 2018, Falon Williams began working at Johnson’s office as a paralegal, the complaint states, noting that in June 2019, Williams informed Johnson that she was considering quitting due to his abusive behavior.

“After Williams confronted Johnson about his behavior, Johnson promoted Williams to the position of office manager in June 2019,” the complaint states.

Despite Johnson’s assurances at that time to Williams that he would no longer yell and swear at staff, Johnson’s behavior did not improve, the complaint added.

“In July 2019, Johnson yelled at all of the employees that he wished they would all die and that their children would die also,” the complaint noted.

On Sept. 30, 2019, Johnson asked Williams to prepare the direct and cross examination questions and voir dire questions for one of Johnson’s upcoming trials. Williams refused to do so because she did not feel qualified. Johnson became angry with Williams and yelled and swore at her for two hours for her refusal, according to the compliant.

Offensive Personality 

“His verbally abusive comments to Williams included that she did not know how to do her ‘f*cking” job’ and that it was not his ‘f*cking’ job to do paperwork,” the complaint added.

After conditions allegedly worsened, Williams resigned, providing two-weeks written notice, which then made the abuse even worse she said, prompting her to rescind the two-weeks notice and resign the next business day.

Johnson had previously accepted a pro-bono case to represent Williams’ husband in another legal matter, but then in November 2019, a month after Williams quit her employment with Johnson, Johnson filed a small claims action (First Lawsuit) against Williams and her husband for the $1,500, the complaint alleges.

At one point Johnson stated that his use of the “n” word is “kind of a term of endearment between minority men and a quote from a movie.”

The complaint continues with several other allegations. Click here to view the full complaint.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide Wednesday the appropriate sanction for Johnson’s misconduct.

In this case, Johnson has appealed a referee’s report and recommendation that his law license be suspended for six months and that he be required to pay full costs of $33,001.74.

Johnson was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in July 2005, according to court officials. His prior disciplinary history includes the above referenced private reprimand in 2008 and a public reprimand in 2010, officials noted.

The referee’s report in this case arises out of a January 2022 Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) complaint charging Johnson with five counts of professional misconduct. The OLR’s complaint stems from Johnson’s behavior (mentioned above) from late 2018 to April 2020, where he is alleged to have engaged in offensive personality toward his staff (using derogatory language directed at his staff or swearing at them, etc.) in violation of the Attorney’s Oath in SCR 40.15, which is enforced via SCR 20:8.4(g); failed to review documents prepared by his staff prior to those documents being filed with the court and failed to adequately supervise and train his staff, in violation of SCR 20:5.3(a) and (b); knowingly omitted material facts when he testified at a small claims trial in violation of SCR 20:3.3(a)(1); and failed to explain matters to a criminal client in violation of SCR 20:1.4(b) and made a false statement to the court in violation of SCR 20:3.3(a)(1), officials said.

OLR Investigation

After the OLR investigated the grievances filed against Johnson, it filed a complaint with the Supreme Court. The court appointed a referee to hear the disciplinary case against Johnson.  The referee ordered briefing and held a hearing at which testimony was taken from former staff members and a current employee of Johnson and Johnson himself. The referee found Johnson’s violations to be very serious and recommended that Johnson receive a six-month suspension, officials noted.

Officials say Johnson does not believe his poor language choices constituted “offensive personality.” He claims he did not violate SCR 20:5.3(a) and (b) because these provisions do not require him to personally train his staff, nor do they prohibit him from delegating these functions. Johnson says that he truthfully testified at the small claims trial, did not knowingly omit any material fact, and to the extent there was any omission, he said he corrected it at the trial. Further, Johnson claims that because the client he represented in the criminal proceeding did not testify at his disciplinary hearing, it is not known what the client understood or did not understand, and there was no other evidence the client was harmed or otherwise unhappy with Johnson’s representation. Finally, Johnson insists the OLR did not prove by clear, satisfactory and convincing evidence that he knowingly made a false statement to the court during his representation of that client.

Regarding the referee’s recommendation of a six-month suspension and payment of costs, Johnson says a 90-day suspension would be sufficient, officials added. Johnson says the referee gave insufficient weight to difficulties he was experiencing in his personal life at the time. In addition, Johnson notes that because of the time involved in the reinstatement process, a six-month suspension could effectively stretch into a much longer period, which he claims is “a professional death sentence” for a solo practitioner like himself.

Updated 12:17 p.m. CST on September 13, 2023

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