Can I Garnish That Joint Bank Account? That May Depend On What The Term “Judgment” Means

Does a creditor who obtains a judgment against a debtor in Florida and then records that judgment in Maryland have a single judgment that it can enforce in Florida and Maryland or a Florida judgment and a separate Maryland judgment?  In a February 28, 2020 opinion, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that, for purposes of garnishing a bank account of the judgment debtor in Maryland, the judgment creditor was executing on a separate Maryland judgment that was created when the Florida judgment was recorded in Maryland under Maryland’s version of the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (UEFJA).  The result of that holding was that the creditor could not garnish the bank account.

The issue arose because of a Maryland statute which prohibits a creditor from garnishing a joint bank account if one of the joint account holders is not a judgment debtor and the account “was established as a joint account prior to the date of entry of judgment giving rise to the garnishment.”  The creditor, Edgefield Holdings, had obtained a judgment against Thomas Stevenson in Florida on October 6, 2009.  Mr. Stevenson and his wife opened joint bank accounts with Shore United Bank in Maryland in 2013 and 2016.  On November 22, 2017, Edgefield recorded its Florida judgment in Maryland and issued writs of garnishment to Shore United. 

Mr. Stevenson argued that Edgefield could not garnish the joint accounts because the “judgment giving rise to the garnishment” was the judgment that resulted from the November 22, 2017 recording of the Florida judgment in Maryland and the accounts had been established as joint accounts prior to that date.  Edgefield argued that the “judgment giving rise to the garnishment” was the October 6, 2009 Florida judgment that it was simply enforcing in Maryland and that it could garnish the joint accounts because they were established as joint accounts after the date of the judgment. The trial court sided with Edgefield and Mr. Stevenson appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.

The Court of Special Appeals described the issue as one of first impression in Maryland.  Consequently, the Court needed to base its decision on the language of applicable Maryland statutes and rules and authorities from other jurisdictions.

Mr. Stevenson argued that the Court of Special Appeals should follow federal cases interpreting a federal statue governing enforcement of a judgment of one United States District Court in another U.S. District Court which contains language very similar to UEFJA.  Those cases have held that a new judgment is created each time the initial judgment is recorded in another district.

Edgefield argued that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that “Full faith and credit shall be given in each State to the…Judicial Proceedings of every other State” required Maryland to recognize the Florida judgment as the judgment being enforced.  Edgefield also argued that if the “date of entry of judgment” meant the date on which a foreign judgment was recorded in another state, “judgment debtors could conceal assets from judgment creditors by moving from one state to another,” defeating the purpose of the UEFJA which is to facilitate enforcement of foreign judgments to implement the policy evidenced by UEFJA and the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

The Court started its analysis by reciting that its role was to “discern and carry out the intent of the Legislature.”  Discerning the Legislature’s intent, the Court said, “begins with the plain language of the statute, and ordinary popular understanding of the English language dictates interpretation of its terminology.”  “When a statute’s language is unambiguous,” the Court said, “we need only apply the status as written, and our efforts to ascertain the legislature’s intent end there.”

The Court then cited numerous Maryland statutes and Rules of Civil Procedure in which the term “judgment,” “judgment of another court,” and “foreign judgment” appear.  It concluded from the fact that the term “foreign judgment” or “judgment of another court” was used when the intent was clearly to mean the judgment of another state, while the statute prohibiting garnishment of a joint account if it was established as a joint account prior to the date of entry of “judgment” giving rise to the garnishment did not use the qualifier “foreign” or “another court,” demonstrated the legislature’s intent that the date of the recording of the Florida judgment in Maryland, not the date of the Florida judgment, be the applicable date.   It noted that the Maryland Rule governing garnishments authorizes the issuance of writs of garnishment to enforce “judgments,” not “foreign judgments” or “judgments of another court.”  The Court further bolstered its conclusion by noting the consistency of its interpretation of the Maryland statute with the federal court decisions cited by Mr. Stevenson interpreting the federal statute with language similar to the Maryland statute to result in a new judgment being created each time a judgment of one U.S. District Court is recorded in another district.

Despite the Court’s conclusion that the statute at issue unambiguously supported Mr. Stevenson’s position, the trial court read the same statute and ruled in favor of Edgefield.  If Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, decides to review the issue of first impression, the Court of Special Appeals will not have the final word on the issue.