Louisiana Record

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Baton Rouge attorney allegedly mishandled client's money

By Kerry Goff | Aug 23, 2016

BATON ROUGE -- The Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) has reviewed Baton Rouge attorney Vincent J. DeSalvo after an alleged violation of Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct, specifically safekeeping client/third party property and recommended he be publicly reprimanded.

DeSalvo admitted to the allegations in the charges. The ODC filed the formal charges on July 7, 2015, and explained that on Sept. 22, 2014, the ODC received an overdraft notice from BanCorp South Bank regarding the trust of DeSalvo. According to the notice, the trust account was overdrawn in the amount of $1,004. After being placed on notice of this issue by ODC, DeSalvo explained that the overdraft resulted from inadvertently depositing a client’s settlement funds into his operating account. He subsequently transferred sufficient funds to cover this error and no client harm resulted.

“A lawyer shall hold property of clients or third persons that is in a lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property,” the court document said.  

Despite DeSalvo’s quick cooperation, when the ODC reviewed his bank records covering the period March 2014 to September 2014, there was evidence of conversion on nearly half of the settlement disbursements, which raised concerns by the committee.

Although none of the conversion directly affected his clients, the committee found that DeSalvo was improperly deposited client funds totaling $74,281.92 for one client, which resulted in his account being overdrawn.

“In addition, on three separate occasions, (DeSalvo) inadvertently deposited his fee and expense check into his account instead of his operating account,” the court document said

After a considerable laundry list of similar occurrences on different clients’ accounts, the committee found that DeSalvo’s actions were "negligent," rather than "knowingly" performed, mainly because he had become, over time, less diligent in ensuring that all settlement funds were timely deposited in his account.

The committee did find that DeSalvo had a strong desire to satisfy his clients and give them their money as quickly as possible, but by doing so, he did not handle disbursements as required.

"The purpose of disciplinary proceedings is not primarily to punish the lawyer, but rather to maintain the appropriate standards of professional conduct, to preserve the integrity of the legal profession and to deter other lawyers from engaging in violations of the standard of the profession," the court document said.

One of the more glaring offenses for which DeSalvo was honest and forthright involved the disbursement of settlement funds to clients and third parties prior to those funds being deposited or made available in his account.

“The appropriate sanction for (DeSalvo’s) conduct hinges on whether or not the committee believes the respondent's actions were ‘negligent’ or ‘knowing,’” the committee said. “The committee finds the (his) actions were negligent and, thus, a public reprimand, rather than a suspension, is the appropriate sanction.”

Furthermore, because DeSalvo testified that he had a credit line tied to his accounts, no checks would be declined. Thus, he felt there was no potential for conversion of client funds and no client or third party was subject to injury.

“The reality is that respondent had become lax in timely depositing settlement funds in his account,” the document said. “(Desalvo) did not view his practice as inappropriate, since no clients or third parties ever suffered any harm and, in his opinion, would never have suffered any harm given his credit line.”

The committee agreed with DeSalvo that no clients or third parties suffered any harm, but the committee was more interested in what, if anything, he had done to change his practices. DeSalvo admitted fault to these errors, provided full disclosure to the ODC and has changed his office practices regarding disbursements to clients, which helped the board agree with the committee’s suggestion for a public reprimand.

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Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board