As a plaintiff, you often roam a long and weary road before you achieve your ultimate litigation goal: a judgment against a defendant. Now that you have your prize, what do you do with it? With any luck, the defendant recognizes the error of his or her ways and willingly pays you the full amount that the court has awarded you. Many times, however, the opposing party is not willing to voluntarily pay up. Now what?
Pennsylvania law provides various means to assist a plaintiff in collecting and enforcing a money judgment. One common way of obtaining money from a recalcitrant judgment debtor is through a garnishment action. Garnishment is essentially the process of retrieving a judgment debtor’s assets from a third party. Often times, as many of our financial institution clients know all too well, this means requiring the defendant’s bank to put a hold on their account and for the financial institution to subsequently turn over all non-exempt funds to the plaintiff. This is usually a quick, easy, and fairly inexpensive way to collect on a judgment.
While garnishments are primarily something that financial institutions must deal with, many other clients may be subject to such actions as well. The garnishment rules clearly apply to any party holding an asset for the benefit of a judgment debtor. Such assets are not always bank account funds, but rather could also include collateral such as cars, trucks, heavy equipment, or other tangible assets. For example, we recently assisted a client with a garnishment action where the plaintiff sought to obtain gambling winnings which the client held for a defendant.
If you are not a banking institution, it is unlikely that you have had to navigate the garnishment process. An understanding of that process, however, could prevent major headaches and consequences down the road.
A properly garnished account entails several steps, some mandatory, others optional. First, a writ of execution in garnishment must be filed with the court and served by a sheriff on the party holding the defendant’s assets. Once the writ is received, the garnishee must be very careful to prevent the dissipation of the assets listed in the writ. At this point, we would advise seeking advice from counsel about how to proceed. Many times, the proper response is to turn over the named assets to the plaintiff. That is not always the case, however, as certain types of assets are exempt from execution.
In addition to the writ of execution in a garnishment, you may also receive garnishment interrogatories. Although not mandatory, garnishment interrogatories more often than not accompany the writ of execution. A strong word of caution here: garnishment interrogatories are in essence the start of a complaint, just as if you were being sued in court by the plaintiff. If the interrogatories are not answered within a certain time-frame, the plaintiff is permitted to enter a judgment against you, as the garnishee, for the same amount that the judgment debtor owes the plaintiff. Having an appreciation and understanding of what to do when you are served with these type of documents is essential to preventing the judgment debtor’s woes becoming your own.
Dana W. Chilson is the chair of McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC’s Insurance Group, as well as a member of the Public Sector, Litigation, Financial Services, and Injunction groups. She can be reached at 717-237-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org