Disbursement for Tort Claim Settlement Upon Deposit of Funds Provisionally Credited to Trust Account
Opinion rules that a lawyer may settle a tort claim by making disbursements from a trust account in reliance upon the deposit of funds provisionally credited to the account if the deposited funds are in the form of a financial instrument that is specified in the Good Funds Settlement Act, G.S. Chap. 45A.
Attorney regularly represents individuals with personal injury claims. When an insurance company check for $5000 or more is paid in settlement of a client's claim, the check is deposited into the trust account of Attorney's firm. No disbursements are made to the client, or to third parties on behalf of the client, until the funds are actually collected because RPC 191 limits the disbursements that can be made against provisional credit. RPC 191 prohibits a lawyer from making disbursements from a trust account unless the funds are actually on deposit in the account or, if the depository institution grants provisional credit, unless the financial instrument deposited into the account is one of the ones specified in the Good Funds Settlement Act, G.S. Chap. 45A (the "Act").
Attorney believes that RPC 191 should not apply to disbursements from a trust account for a personal injury settlement because the Act is specifically limited to the settlement of residential real estate transactions. See G.S. §45A-2. Attorney believes that the limitations of RPC 191 create a hardship on his firm and the client because the client has to come to the firm's office to endorse the settlement check and, after the check clears the bank, return to the firm to collect the disbursement. This may have an adverse effect on a client's credit and delay repairs to or replacement of an automobile if there is also a property damage settlement. It also costs Attorney additional time to meet with the client twice.
Is RPC 191 applicable to personal injury settlements? If so, is there an exemption for personal injury settlements or checks from insurance companies licensed to do business in North Carolina?
RPC 191 is applicable to all disbursements from a trust account against financial instruments that are not irrevocably credited to the account upon deposit although the Good Funds Settlement Act was adopted by the General Assembly only to regulate the settlement of residential real estate transactions. The rationale for the opinion is found in the following excerpt from the opinion:
Notwithstanding the fact that some of the forms of funds designated in the Act are not irrevocably credited to the lawyer's trust account at the time of deposit, the risk of noncollectibility is so slight that a lawyer's disbursement of funds from a trust account in reliance upon the deposit into the account of provisionally credited funds in these forms shall not be considered unethical. However, a closing lawyer should never disburse against any provisionally credited funds unless he or she reasonably believes that the underlying deposited instrument is virtually certain to be honored when presented for collection. A lawyer may immediately disburse against collected funds, such as cash or wired funds, and may immediately make disbursements from his or her trust account in reliance upon provisional credit extended by the depository institution for funds deposited into the trust account in one or more of the forms set forth in G.S. §45A-4.
The disbursement of funds from a trust account by a lawyer in reliance upon provisional credit extended upon the deposit of an item into the trust account which does not take one of the forms prescribed in the Act constitutes professional misconduct, regardless of whether the item is ultimately honored or dishonored.
The exception allowed in RPC 191 to the duty to disburse only against collected funds in a trust account is purposefully narrow to limit the potential for disbursements against instruments that are subsequently dishonored. If an instrument is subsequently dishonored, it puts at risk all client funds on deposit in the trust account. The relatively minor inconvenience of waiting for a check to clear the bank is offset by the protection that disbursement against collected funds provides to all clients with funds deposited in the trust account. The General Assembly, as a matter of public policy, has determined that the items set forth in the Good Funds Settlement Act are sufficiently reliable to exempt these items from the safeguard awaiting to collect the funds but the Ethics Committee of the State Bar does not have the authority to expand the exemption.
When Attorney settles a property damage claim on a client's vehicle, he asks the insurance company to put only the name of the client on the settlement check. Attorney believes that this is the only way that the check can be given directly to the client. If the check is made out to both the client and the law firm, Attorney deposits the check into the trust account and waits until the check is collected before disbursing the entire amount of the check to the client. The delay before disbursement can be a serious inconvenience to a client who needs an automobile for transportation.
If an insurance check is made out jointly to the law firm (or Attorney) and the client, may Attorney endorse the check and give the check to the client without depositing it first into the trust account?
When funds belonging presently or potentially to a lawyer are received in combination with funds belonging to a client, or other persons, the funds must be deposited in tact into the trust account. See Rule 1.15-2(g). However, if all of the funds represented by a check from a third party belong to the client or the lawyer is prepared to forgo being paid for his legal services from the check proceeds (and bill the client instead), the check may be endorsed directly to the client without being deposited into the trust account.