Despite a finding that prominent Indianapolis employment attorney Michael Blickman violated an ethical rule in his handling of a student-teacher sex scandal at Park Tudor High School, the hearing officer in Blickman’s disciplinary case is not recommending any action against his law license.
Instead, Elkhart County Senior Judge Terry Shewmaker has recommended that, at most, Blickman should be reprimanded for a violation of a rule dealing with attorney competence. But given the publicity surrounding the disciplinary action, Shewmaker said the Indiana Supreme Court “may consider the trial and adverse publicity associated with this case to be synonymous with an admonishment, forgoing further sanction.”
It will be up to the Indiana Supreme Court to determine what sanction, if any, Blickman will receive.
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission had sought the suspension of the Ice Miller LLP attorney in November 2018, alleging violations of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct. Those allegations stemmed from Blickman’s representation of Park Tudor, where in late 2015, boys basketball coach Kyle Cox was accused of engaging in sexually explicit messaging with a 15-year-old student.
“The facts of this case unfold like a law school test question,” Shewmaker wrote. “Issues are intertwined and interrelated like the various layers encountered in peeling an onion.”
According to Shewmaker, there are two overarching “critical issues” underlying the disciplinary action. The first issue relates to Matthew Miller, the then-headmaster/head of school at Park Tudor, who died by suicide in January 2016. The second relates to the ensuing investigation by law enforcement and the Department of Child Services.
The saga began in December 2015, when the teenager’s father had a meeting with Miller and Blickman. The father presented his daughter’s laptop, which contained explicit images of the girl that had been sent to Cox.
The father mentioned in the meeting that he had already asked his daughter to delete some of those images. At the end of the meeting, Blickman took the laptop to copy the remaining photos.
“It appears Mr. Blickman’s sole interest was to preserve evidence … ,” Shewmaker wrote.
The commission, however, said Blickman had violated criminal statutes against possessing and copying child pornography. But Shewmaker noted both a local and federal prosecutor declined to bring charges against him.
“Mr. Blickman did in fact copy the photos in question to use as evidence to support the termination of Kyle Cox’s employment,” the hearing officer said. “Mr. Blickman’s conduct was not admirable, but, considering all the facts in this case taken as a whole, a suspension from the practice of law is unwarranted.”
The “critical issue” involving Miller came into sharper focus in the next section of the report, which relates to the allegation that Blickman violated his statutory obligation to immediately report child abuse.
The attorney left Park Tudor around 7:30 p.m. after the meeting with the victim’s father and, in response to a question from Miller, promised to research Indiana’s law regarding reporting obligations. At 6:49 a.m. the following day, he advised Miller that a report was required and offered to make the report himself.
Miller, however, received advice from another attorney, who said he had 24 hours to report the abuse to DCS. Miller did not share this advice with Blickman.
Miller never made the report, instead choosing to listen in as associate headmaster Shants Hart made the call to DCS. When a DCS representative asked, over speakerphone, whether there were photographs involved in the incident, Miller silently and inaccurately indicated to Hart that he did not know.
“It is no secret from the presentation of evidence that Dr. Matthew Miller was somewhat opportunistic,” Shewmaker wrote. “… This appears to be a deliberate attempt by Dr. Miller to protect himself and Park Tudor from unwanted scrutiny.”
Determining it was “reasonable” for Blickman to conduct research before giving a legal opinion on reporting obligations—and noting Blickman’s offer to make the report—Shewmaker said the attorney acted “reasonably and timely.”
Similarly, the commission charged Blickman with failing to advise the school to immediately report the child abuse. Once again, Shewmaker found no ethical violation.
“Ms. Hart got all the information to report from Dr. Miller. She never told anyone she received the information for the report from Mr. Blickman. She received no guidance, instruction or information from Mr. Blickman,” he wrote.
But the hearing officer did find against Blickman on one aspect of the commission’s allegations: his preparation of a settlement agreement between the school and the victim’s family.
The agreement, which the family declined to sign, required that the family “shall not disclose this Agreement or its terms or information … to any other person or entity; provided, however, they may disclose such information to their attorney … .”
“This is troubling,” Shewmaker wrote. “The language … would silence the family’s efforts to report this matter to law enforcement as well as to DCS. It appears to be an attempt to shield Park Tudor School from adverse publicity.”
Blickman testified in September that the child’s family had insisted on confidentiality. Additionally, he said the confidentiality provision included in the agreement was standard.
Shewmaker, however, said “(n)o adequate or logical explanation has been advanced by Mr. Blickman. No legitimate reason exists. It is pure and simple against public policy.
“Ultimately, law enforcement, prosecutors, and the United States Attorney’s Office are charged with the responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of criminal offenses,” he continued. “Civil attorneys are not. Civil attorneys have the obligation to uphold our laws.”
Even so, Shewmaker noted the victim’s family was represented by counsel at all relevant times and decided on their own not to speak with DCS or law enforcement to avoid further trauma for the victim. He also pointed to Blickman’s 40-plus-year career, his clean disciplinary history and his lack of “prurient purpose or criminal intent in preserving the photographic evidence.”
“The Respondent reasonably believed that his client, Dr. Miller/Park Tudor School, would follow his legal advice,” Shewmaker concluded. “The client did not fully follow the legal advice given.”
Also at issue in the disciplinary action is a conflict of interest allegation. The commission initially claimed Blickman and Cox were close friends, but withdrew that allegation in an amended complaint.
Even so, Blickman’s defense team offered the testimony of Cox’s ex-wife, who said the friendship allegations were untrue. Shewmaker declined to make findings or recommendations on the defense’s offer to prove.
Blickman is represented in the disciplinary case by a team from Hoover Hull Turner in Indianapolis, including former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm.
Wayne Turner, another of Blickman’s attorneys, declined to publicly comment on Shewmaker’s report.
The parties have 30 days from the filing of Shewmaker’s report to seek Indiana Supreme Court review.