BATON ROUGE – The Louisiana Supreme Court in early February suspended the law license of Walter C. Dumas for two years, citing misconduct and negligence in mishandling a client's funds. The Baton Rouge attorney has been practicing law for more than four decades.
The court ruled that Dumas didn't pay one heir in the case for more than a year after settlement. That heir filed a complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in October 2011.
"Whenever a lawyer mishandles client funds, it is considered an offense of the highest order," Dane Ciolino, professor of law at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, told the Louisiana Record. "This type of conduct is not unheard of, but it is never looked upon as minor."
A woman hired an associate of Dumas in 2009 to handle settlement of her father's assets after his death. As sole manager of the firm's trust account, he received $18,509 to divide between the man's wife and daughter. According to the ruling, Dumas paid the wife the $11,105 that he owed her but not the $7,403 the daughter was to receive.
The daughter filed a disciplinary complaint. During Disciplinary Counsel proceedings, he allegedly admitted misconduct and blamed "sloppy bookkeeping." However, he said, by the time he learned about the mistake, he purportedly didn't have enough money to pay the daughter immediately. She received her share of the settlement in May 2012.
According to the Supreme Court ruling: “His misconduct was rooted in negligence. His lapses demonstrate a deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable lawyer would exercise, particularly since respondent was previously disciplined for the same type of misconduct.”
This was not the first time Dumas had been accused of financial misconduct:
• In 1987, he was reprimanded for withholding fees in excess of what was specified in an employment contract, failing to pay third-party medical providers and not depositing disputed funds in a trust.
• In 2006, he again was reprimanded for engaging in behavior deemed incompetent, negligent and a conflict of interest.
• In 2002, he was suspended from practicing law for one year and placed on a yearlong supervised probation for commingling client and third-party funds.
Given his track record, Ciolino said, the penalty imposed by the court is reasonable.
"A two-year suspension is pretty routine," he said. "In fact, it even may be on the lenient side of things, given the seriousness of the accounting misconduct and the fact he had done it before. The sanctions are not out of line, especially for a repeat offender."