Ubi O’Neal, a candidate for Cook County circuit judge, was once censured for legal misconduct by the Illinois Supreme Court after he directed someone to fraudulently endorse a settlement check so that he could be paid for his work.
O’Neal’s case, which was resolved in 1999, was identified during an Injustice Watch review of the public records of the current judicial candidates. O’Neal was restored to the ballot last week after he won an appeal of a challenge to his candidacy for a 2nd subcircuit judicial seat. He joins three other judicial candidates whom Injustice Watch wrote about earlier this month in having a rare disciplinary blemish on his record; about two in every thousand registered attorneys in Illinois are disciplined each year.
Beginning on February 21, Cook County voters will start heading to the polls to winnow down the field of 110 judicial primary candidates vying to fill 39 vacancies on the bench. For the majority of races in which there is no partisan contest, the primary elections serve as the final word in who will become a judge in Cook County. This article is part of Injustice Watch‘s continuing coverage prior to the March elections.
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O’Neal, who used to be known as Ubochi Osuji, was censured in connection to his representation of a client trying to obtain money from his insurance company for medical bills after a car accident. O’Neal did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
According to the report of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission review panel:
After O’Neal successfully negotiated with the insurance company for the funds, he was sent a check payable to his client, himself, and a hospital to which his client owed money. O’Neal had agreed with his client that he would be paid a portion of the insurance settlement, but the check covered the client’s medical bills exactly, with no excess funds to pay him.
O’Neal called both the hospital and the law firm representing the hospital in attempting to collect debts and asked both to reduce the hospital costs in order to pay his legal fees. When both refused, O’Neal and his client signed the check, he had his client’s wife fraudulently sign the check on the hospital’s behalf, and then he deposited it. He then sent the hospital a check for 20% less than what it was owed, saying that he had deducted that amount for his legal fees.
At the time, O’Neal admitted that he had improperly had his client’s wife endorse the check, but said that his intention was to preserve the funds for his client, and that he did not understand that in this case he could not collect a fee from the party that benefited from his work, the hospital.
He was found to have committed misconduct not only because of his treatment of the check, but also because he communicated directly with the hospital when he knew it had a lawyer he should have talked to instead, breaking a rule of professional conduct.
The hearing board ruled that O’Neal had a fraudulent intent and recommended a six-month suspension. But after an internal appeal, the review board wrote that the false endorsement amounted to a technical violation and reduced the recommended punishment to a public censure, saying, “We believe his improper conduct is attributable to lack of experience and poor judgment rather than an intent to deny any party a share of the settlement proceeds.” The Supreme Court adopted the censure recommendation.
The Chicago Council of Lawyers, which evaluates judicial candidates, found O’Neal not recommended because he did not participate in the evaluation process. He faces two opponents, both of whom have been found qualified: Debra A. Seaton, a sitting judge temporarily appointed to the bench in 2017 after working as a solo practitioner and a public defender, and Sheree D. Henry, a Cook County public defender.
O’Neal is currently being sued for malpractice together with another attorney he worked with, court records show. Thomas Harmer alleges that Arthur E. Engelland, O’Neal, and another defendant who has since been dismissed failed to represent him adequately in a business dispute, including missing important depositions and failing to review or present exculpatory evidence he provided.