Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Garnishments: They're not just for sandwiches anymore.
Hard times don't just mean that more people can't pay their bills; it also means that debt collectors have to be more aggressive because more people can't pay their bills.
When times are good, debt collectors can be (relatively) lenient: enough debtors will pay up without legal action to keep the money coming in, so they may be less likely to actually file a lawsuit or take action to enforce a judgment they've gotten. But when wallets tighten up and people don't have as much money, debt collectors have to take a harder line, too, not waiting for debtors to pay up but forcing them to.
And often times, that means garnishment: filing a legal action to take money away by force, from your paycheck or your bank account or other reserve of money. And the desperation of some debt collectors or creditors to find money leads them to file garnishments in more and more creative circumstances -- circumstances that don't always work out because sometimes, the creditor jumped the gun and filed too soon.
That's what happened in Hometown Bank v. Acuity Ins., a 2008 Wisconsin case with a complicated background and a straightforward result.
Hometown Bank was owed money by a company called "Westra," and Hometown ended up owning Westra's accounts receivable. One of those accounts receivable was owed by a guy named "Jungwirth" (and his company, but I can just call him Jungwirth because that's what the courts did.) Hometown sued Jungwirth to collect the Westra account -- with me so far? -- and got a default judgment.
I don't know why Jungwirth didn't answer the complaint, but I suspect it's because he wasn't worried about being collected against, and I suspect that based on what happened next: After getting their $11,000 default judgment, Hometown went after Acuity Insurance, trying to garnish money Hometown thought Acuity was going to pay to Jungwirth.
Still with me?
Hometown sued Acuity because Hometown had been told that Acuity was going to pay some money to Jungwirth; Hometown had been told that by Jungwirth. (Jungwirth apparently thought Acuity was trying to collect some money that had been withheld from payment on one of his jobs.)
Acuity defended the garnishment by claiming that it owed no money to Jungwirth, that no claim had been made, and that if a claim were made, Acuity would owe the money to the injured party, not Jungwirth. In other words, Acuity had no money or property of Jungwirth's.
The Court ruled that Hometown had a claim only if Jungwirth at the time of service "had, ... or in the future certainly will have" a claim against Acuity. If he did (or certainly would) have such a claim, Hometown might be able to garnish it. But, the Court said, in the future, Jungwirth's "Liability would arise only if proof of loss is served, if Jungwirth is determined to be liable, and if the claim is covered under the liability policy."
Then, the Court noted: "Even that would not be enough, however. Supposing those uncertainties all came to pass, Acuity still would not owe any money to Jungwirth, but to the injured party."
Case over: The bank didn't get to garnish Acuity, and Acuity was awarded $500 in costs -- which Hometown appealed, amazingly enough (the filing fee for an appeal is nearly half the amount that was awarded), but the appeal didn't work, either.