Attorneys who misappropriate their clients' funds will not be allowed to practice law in Utah, the state Supreme Court made clear in two opinions released Tuesday.
The opinions support the disbarment of Salt Lake attorneys Peter M. Ennenga and Jamis M. Johnson in two separate cases.
The unanimous court determined Ennenga, admitted to the Utah State Bar in 1970, misappropriated $18,000 of a client's money. Ennenga deposited some of the money in his personal checking account and had a cashier's check made out for the rest, the opinion says. He spent the entire amount on personal expenses, paying the money back five years later after the client threatened a lawsuit and filed a complaint with the bar's Office of Professional Conduct, according to the opinion.
Third District Judge Stephen Henriod suspended Ennenga for six months, followed by three years of probation. The bar appealed, and the Supreme Court ruled Ennenga's conduct was egregious enough to warrant disbarment.
In Johnson's case, 3rd District Judge Timothy Hanson disbarred the 18-year attorney after finding he kept $28,800 from a client for his own use, according to Tuesday's opinion.
Johnson appealed, saying his client rejected the money, garnered from a settlement in a civil case. Johnson also argued he was entitled to a portion of the $28,800 because his client owed him money for legal fees.
The court disagreed, ruling Johnson was obligated to keep the funds in a separate trust account until the dispute was resolved.
In both opinions, the court said, "We do not administer the sanction of disbarment lightly; we understand its devastating effects on an attorney. However, we are charged with protecting the public and the legal system of our state from those attorneys who do not abide by their professional responsibilities, and we cannot tolerate the intentional misappropriations of a client's funds."
Also in Johnson's case, the state bar sought guidance from the high court on allowing disbarred attorneys to continue practicing law pending an appeal of the decision. The high court was divided on the issue.
Tuesday's opinion upholds Hanson's decision to stay Johnson's disbarment until the Supreme Court's ruling.
"Johnson's conduct warranting disbarment was a serious one-time offense and not a continuing pattern of misconduct that was likely to recur," Chief Justice Richard Howe wrote.
Justice Christine Durham took it one step further, recommending an automatic stay unless there is definitive evidence that the public would be damaged. Durham likened disbarment to the death penalty, calling it the "ultimate" sanction against attorneys.
Taking the other side, Justice Michael Wilkins ruled it should be attorneys' obligation to prove why they should be allowed to continue practicing law until an appellate court has a chance to rule in the case."Our duty to protect the public is higher than any duty to the disbarred lawyer," he wrote.
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