The Law is All Paperwork: An Improperly Authenticated Judgment may Result in Dismissal of Foreign Judgment Action

On my Facebook page, I describe myself as “The Garth Brooks of Paperwork.” Which is a way of poking fun at lots of things about me and my job.

But, law students, please know that success as a lawyer is basically 65% being really good at paperwork.

Thankfully, for the other 35% of us, you can generally amend pleadings to correct mistakes or errors. I’ve recently found a situation where you can’t amend a court filing, such that the entire case might be dismissed.

It’s when there’s an error in your initial filing of a Notice of a Foreign Judgment under the the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (the “Act”), found in Tennessee at Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-101 et.seq.

If a judgment creditor fails to attach a proper exhibit, i.e. a properly authenticated copy of the out-of-state judgment to be enforced, there is a line of cases in Tennessee that say the entire lawsuit is defective because the failure to follow the statutory procedure for authenticating a foreign judgment is fatal as a matter of law.

What’s scary about this line of cases is that there appears to be no ability to file a Motion to Amend Pleadings under Rule 15. Those types of requests are generally granted and would usually allow the plaintiff to correct the error and move on.

Not in proceedings under the Act, Tennessee Courts have said. A recent trial court decision found that a Notice of Filing was not one of the expressly provided list of “pleadings” in Rule 7.01 and, therefore, not subject to amendment under Rule 15.01.

Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.01 allows parties to amend their pleadings, and leave to amend pleadings is freely granted by the courts when justice demands. Tenn. Rule 7.01 defines “pleading” as a complaint, answer, counter-complaint, answer to a cross-claim, a third-party complaint and third-party answer and states that “no other pleading shall be allowed.’ The Notice of Filing required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-104 is not one of the pleadings listed in Rule 7.01.

Apparently, then, the judgment creditor’s only recourse when the foreign judgment notice is defective is to dismiss the domestication action, and then re-file a corrected, new proceeding. Yikes.

Why Do Tennessee Court Clerks Hold Garnished Funds for Twenty Days?

You’ve got your judgment. You’ve waited for the appeal period to expire. You’ve issued your garnishment. And, finally, the Clerk has some money for you. But, they say they have to hold it for 20 days. 20 more days!?!

Why? Where does this 20 day period come from? It’s on the garnishment forms, I know, but what’s the basis for holding the funds under the Rules of Procedure or under Tennessee statutes?

The answer is Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-407, which allows a judgment debtor to file a motion to quash a garnishment, in order to assert certain exemption rights, within twenty (20) days from the levy.

Wait a second, you might be thinking. What about Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-114, which says that “a claim for exemption filed after the judgment has become final will have no effect as to an execution which is issued prior to the date the claim for exemption is filed, and as to such preexisting execution the claim for exemption shall be deemed waived.”

In layman’s terms: If you don’t claim the exemption before the garnishment is issued, then it’s waived. Why on earth, then, a procedure exist to assert a claim that was waived?

Here’s how this works: Tennessee statutes allow some assets to be absolutely exempt. These assets include: social security benefits; certain government pensions; certain health care aids; unemployment and veterans benefits; and certain insurance benefits. (See Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-404 for a list.)

These assets are “untouchable,” and, as a result, the motion to quash procedure exists to make sure that the garnishment doesn’t catch those specific items.

As a practical matter, a judgment debtor use this time period to file a Slow Pay Motion or file a Bankruptcy, but, under Tennessee law, they’ve actually got a very limited basis to attack your garnishment during the 20 days. If it’s not one of those listed exemptions, you’ll probably get your money…in twenty days.

Post-Judgment Interest Rates in Tennessee Have Finally Increased (by .25%)

Back in July 2012, the Tennessee legislature passed a new “post-judgment” interest statute, which can be found at Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121. As I said back then, it was a big change: Instead of a blanket “10%” rate, Tennessee would be using a variable rate, tied to the “formula rate published by the commissioner of financial institutions.”

Long story short: I hate it when the law replaces something simple with something complicated.

Since the enactment of the statute, the post-judgment interest rate has been 5.25%, until January 1, 2016, when it jumped up to 5.5%.

The sky has not yet fallen, however, like I said it would. My biggest concern was: “[t]here appears to be an obligation to research and modify the rate every six months. Payoffs just got a lot more difficult.” I don’t like math.

After a few years with the statute, I’m of the opinion that the interest rate on a judgment is set at the date of the judgment and then doesn’t change. As a result, there’s no need to track the ups and downs of the statutory rate.

But, to be entirely safe, I always recite the exact post-judgment rate in effect at the time of my judgment in my judgment, to save any confusion and subsequent research.

Domestication of Federal Court Judgments: Really Easy

Four years ago, I talked about the process of domesticating a foreign judgment, which is the process by which a party makes a judgment of one state enforceable in a different state. Under each state’s version of the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, I said, it’s a pretty easy process.

What I didn’t mention, however, is how much easier it is to enforce a judgment granted in Federal District Court in another District Court.

In the federal system, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1963, all a plaintiff must do is record a certified copy of the final judgment in the other district. “A judgment so registered shall have the same effect as a judgment of the district court of the district where registered and may be enforced in like manner.”

To cut through the legalese, once you record your out-of-district, final judgment, it becomes enforceable immediately in the new district. There’s no need to serve a copy on the judgment debtor; there’s no 30 day response or objection period.

The reasoning behind this is simple. When you cross state lines, you take your judgment into a new jurisdiction, with a different state constitution and different laws. Under the federal court system, you’re not truly crossing any boundaries. And that’s a pretty powerful tool to keep in mind when deciding where to file an action against an out of state defendant.

What to do about a Late Filed Garnishment Response: An Employer Remains Liable for Monies Paid

I file wage garnishments all the time on my Tennessee judgments.

If you know where a defendant works, Tennessee law allows a judgment creditor to garnish the debtor’s wages for payment toward the judgment. (See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-7-101). Without boring you with the details (see this earlier post instead), an employer then is required to pay about 25% of the employee’s wages to the Court Clerk, who then holds the wages and disburses them to the creditor.

In the event the employer fails to respond to the garnishment, the creditor can seek a judgment against the employer itself for the full amount of the judgment (not just 25% of it), which, clearly, is an awesome way to actually get your money.

I’ve explained this process before: you get a “Conditional Judgment” against the employer and then you issue a Scire Facias, which requires the employer to come to Court and “show cause” why it shouldn’t be a “final” judgment.

This sounds great, but nine times out of ten, the employer shows up in response and files (finally) an answer. Under Tennessee case law, a late filed response is good enough to stop the process and avoid a “final” judgment being entered. Last week, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a great opinion in Emrick v Moseley (July 30, 2014), reviewing this entire process.

So, if a conditional judgment is considered a “wake up call” to prompt a response from an employer, then what do you do about the money that the employer should have paid to the Clerk? Two weeks ago, I had this exact case and argued that, under the existing case law, the cow was out of the barn and the employer’s only obligation is to comply with future obligations (i.e. withhold future wages).

I was wrong. That’s where the Emrick case is so good. Via dicta, the Emrick Court says that the employer has exposure under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-7-112 for any money that it should have paid in, if it had timely responded.

So, no, you can’t get a judgment for the full amount of the debtor’s judgment, but you can get a judgment for the garnishment amounts that should have been withheld.

This is good news for creditor attorneys, and, even though I was wrong on this issue in the past, I’m glad to have been wrong.

Employers Who Provide False Garnishment Answers May End Up Owing the Money Themselves

I got a judgment a few months ago, and, having found out where the judgment debtor works, I issued a wage garnishment against the debtor’s wages.

And, oh man, did I ever have that guy. Not only did he work there, but he was listed (and pictured) on their website as an executive. It was only a matter of days until I got my money, right?

Well, not exactly. The employer filed a response that said “Terminated.” That was a surprise. I checked the website. The guy was gone.   Did my garnishment get him fired?  Strange.

So, out of curiosity, I called the employer and got the company directory. The debtor was still listed. So, I waited a few weeks, and they were still listed. I tried the extension and, within seconds, I had the debtor on the phone.

Long story short, I think this employer is lying. What do you do?

Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-204 requires garnishment responses to be under oath. The law even anticipates that an employer might lie: “The answer of the garnishee is not conclusive.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-205. To that end, Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-206 allows a creditor to get a judgment against the employer if they actually have assets of the debtor in their possession.

So, in the end, a creditor has rights against a dishonest employer, but there are hoops to jump through. Though the statutes don’t lay this out, the procedure would be to subpoena the payroll records or otherwise get testimony from the employer to establish the veracity of the response. Then, the creditor must take the employer back to Court under § 26-2-206 to get a judgment.

It’s a hassle. But, if you lie, employers, I’m happy to take a judgment against you.

You’ve Got the Escalade, Now What? A Reminder of What Slow Pay Motions Can’t Do

With the economy in shambles, I’ve come to learn that, sometimes, people are broke.

When I ask that they pay me $250 a month on a judgment, they turn around and file a “slow pay” motion asking to pay me $20 a month.  I talked about Slow Pay Motions (a.k.a. Motion to Pay Judgment by Installments) a few years ago.

Let me revisit one aspect I left out in that earlier post:  What exactly does a Slow Pay Motion stop you from doing?

Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-216 does not stay garnishments against real or personal property; it only stays garnishments against wages or salaries due to the debtors:

The filing of such motion by the debtor shall stay the issuance, execution or return of any writ of garnishment against wages or salary due the judgment debtor or any other funds belonging to the judgment debtor …

Tennessee cases support this conclusion: “No such installment payments are to be ordered unless the debtor has filed an affidavit stating that no other assets are available for payment of the judgment except the wages or salary of the debtor and that any other funds receivable by the debtor are so limited that installment payments are appropriate.” Harrington v. Harrington, 759 S.W.2d 664, 668 (Tenn. 1988).

So, let’s say you execute against a Cadillac Escalade (congratulations), and the borrower files a Slow Pay. In that case, the Court may enter a Slow Pay Order and set payments. But, that Order will prevent Wage Garnishments;  it will not stop collections on real or personal property.