Ex-public defender reinstated after harassment suspension

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A former Adams County chief public defender who was suspended from the practice of law for harassing an ex-girlfriend has been reinstated to the practice of law by the Indiana Supreme Court. A hearing officer in the attorney’s case had concluded the lawyer’s prescribed antidepressant Prozac had triggered his misconduct.

The Indiana Supreme Court reinstated Joseph M. Johnson III of Decatur on Tuesday. Johnson had been suspended for at least one year without automatic reinstatement effective June 28, 2017, for committing attorney misconduct in connection with his pattern of criminal harassment of “Jane Doe,” a woman he was having an affair with while married in 2010.

The affair ended after several months, but when Johnson failed to leave Doe alone after reuniting in 2014, Indiana State Police became involved in the case. Johnson was ultimately found guilty of one count of trespass and was placed on informal probation. The state dropped two felony counts of false reporting related to the incident.

Johnson argued to the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission that he suffered from mental illness, and if the Indiana Supreme Court sanctioned his law license, it would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act

However, the Supreme Court concluded Johnson violated Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(b), committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on lawyers’ honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer; 8.4(d), engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, and; 8.4(e), stating or implying an ability to improperly influence a government official or agency.

Johnson petitioned for reinstatement on June 28, 2018, and after proceedings before a hearing officer, the commission recommended his reinstatement in April 2019. Hearing officer Corinne R. Finnerty concluded her recommendation that Johnson be reinstated by writing that he “is functioning normally under his current medication regime and has a very strong professional and familial support system in place.”

Finnerty concluded Johnson had met the requirements for reinstatement required during his suspension. Finnerty’s report further found that Johnson’s “first episode of serious mental illness was likely brought on by the Prozac (Johnson) was prescribed for his depression symptoms.”

Finnerty’s report also asserts that Johnson was “in the manic phase of his bipolar disorder likely chemically induced by the Prozac he had been prescribed during the events giving rise to his suspension.” The antidepressant, she wrote, “can cause a person to go ‘too far’ in the opposite direction from depression and cause manic symptoms as it did … in this case.”

Indianapolis-based Prozac maker Eli Lilly & Co. declined to comment on the specifics of Johnson’s case and noted Prozac has been sold as a generic drug for more than 15 years.

“Lilly remains committed to the safety and benefits of Prozac, which have been repeatedly affirmed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” a company spokesman said in a statement.

Johnson was ordered to pay any costs owed under Admission and Discipline Rule 23(21)(b). All justices concurred.

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