A Hudson Valley lawyer has been suspended for two years for improperly seizing funds from a client trust account.
The Second Appellate Division found Leslie Andrews in violation of nine charges of professional misconduct in an April 2 ruling.
Andrews focused on construction cases, having run his own construction company for several years, and on commercial and residential real estate. He practiced in White Plains and LaGrangeville.
Most of the charges stem from his handling of one case. He represented John and Elizabeth Reed of Bedford Hills when they put their house up for sale. A New Rochelle couple agreed to buy the house for $1.15 million in 2015 and Andrews deposited the $115,000 down payment in an escrow account.
Then the buyers canceled the deal, claiming that the house should not have received a certificate of occupancy when it was built in 1993 because a support beam had been installed improperly. They claimed they were entitled to the down payment.
Andrews sued the buyers in 2016, on behalf of the Reeds. Before the dispute was to go to trial in 2017, the buyers agreed to relinquish their claim to the down payment.
The attorney grievance committee accused Andrews of mishandling the down payment. The Reeds had agreed to pay him 10% of the total amount recovered if the matter was settled before filing a lawsuit, 20% after the filing and 30% if the case went to trial.
Andrews claimed he was entitled to 30% – $34,500 – on the theory that by filing a request for judicial intervention he had tried the case in court.
His understanding “was incredible,” the appellate judges found, “as the case admittedly did not go to trial” and no proof was offered “other than his own self-serving testimony.”
The judges ruled that Andrews had engaged in a willful misappropriation.
But his transgressions went further, according to the court. In 2016, for instance, when the client trust account should have held $171,548 for the Reeds and five other clients, it was short by more than $45,000.
The appellate court found him guilty of misappropriation of funds by failing to maintain the correct balance in the client trust account, breach of fiduciary duty, disbursing client funds to himself, depositing funds into the wrong account, and failure to provide bank records or identify clients for whom funds were held.
Attempts to get Andrews’ response to the appellate ruling failed.
Andrews admitted that he mismanaged his accounts, according to the appellate ruling, and disputed only the issue of the Reeds’ fee for his services.
He asked the appellate court to consider mitigating factors: He accepted responsibility for his transgressions. He was remorseful. He was inexperienced as a lawyer, having spent most of his career in construction. He lost his life’s savings in the 2008-09 recession and sank into a depression.
Except for the Reeds, he argued, no clients were deprived of their money. And if the court ruled that he was not entitled to 30% from the Reeds, he was prepared to pay the $11,500 they were entitled to.
The ruling was issued by Alan D. Scheinkman, the presiding justice, and Ruth C. Balkin, Hector D. LaSalle, William F. Mastro and Reinaldo E. Rivera.