The Utah Supreme Court has upheld the Utah State Bar's six-month suspension of a Midvale attorney who violated the Utah Code of Professional Responsibility by keeping $5,000 owed a client and using it for his own purposes, even after the court ordered him to return the money.
The suspension of Benjamin P. Knowlton begins Nov. 15. The court ruled that five months of Knowlton's suspension be stayed if he pays Karen Basso Lehmberg Trujillo the $4,999.95 owed her within six months.Ellis and Karen Lehmberg retained Knowlton to sell their house in 1982. Knowlton was paid $2,000 for his legal service. The sale of the house brought in $5,599.95 - which Knowlton deposited in his trust account.
The Lehmbergs divorced shortly after the sale of the house. During divorce proceedings, Knowlton told the district judge presiding over the proceedings that he was holding the money in trust. The judge ordered him to continue holding the monies in trust until the court had decided whether Karen or Ellis Lehmberg received it.
The court awarded the cash to Karen Lehmberg. But Knowlton did not pay her the money. He argued that Ellis Lehmberg owed him money for legal services performed, claimed an attorney's lien on the funds and kept them. In fact, the bar found that Knowlton converted the funds to his personal use, the court's ruling said.
Karen Lehmberg Trujillo pursued the matter in civil court and obtained a judgment in 1983 against Knowlton in the amount of $5,599.95 plus interest from Feb. 5, 1983. Still, Knowlton did not turn over the funds.
In May 1986 the Utah State Bar filed a formal complaint against Knowlton. Hearings were held in 1988 and the board recommended suspension.
Justices Michael Zimmerman and Richard Howe agreed with the other justices in the body of the ruling but argued that Knowlton should have been given only one month - not six - to repay the sum.