467 U.S. 822 (1984), 83-916, United States v. Morton

Docket Nº:No. 83-916
Citation:467 U.S. 822, 104 S.Ct. 2769, 81 L.Ed.2d 680
Party Name:United States v. Morton
Case Date:June 19, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 822

467 U.S. 822 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 2769, 81 L.Ed.2d 680

United States

v.

Morton

No. 83-916

United States Supreme Court

June 19, 1984

Argued April 25, 1984

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FEDERAL CIRCUIT

Syllabus

When respondent, an Air Force Colonel, was stationed in Alaska, the Finance Office of his base received by certified mail a writ of garnishment, accompanied by a copy of a judgment against respondent that had been issued by an Alabama state court in a divorce proceeding. The writ directed the Air Force to withhold $4,100 of respondent's pay to satisfy sums due under the judgment for alimony and child support. Upon being notified of the writ, respondent told the Finance Office that the Alabama court's order was void because the court had no jurisdiction over him. Nevertheless, the Finance Office honored the writ and paid $4,100 to the Alabama court, deducting that amount from respondent's pay. Subsequently, respondent brought an action against the United States in the Court of Claims to recover the amount that had been withheld from his pay. The Government submitted as a complete defense 42 U.S.C. § 659(f), which provides, in connection with § 659(a), making federal [104 S.Ct. 2770] employees, including members of the Armed Services, subject to legal process to enforce their child support and alimony payment obligations, that

[n]either the United States, any disbursing officer, nor governmental entity shall be liable with respect to any payment made from moneys due or payable from the United States to any individual pursuant to legal process regular on its face,

if such payment is made in accordance with the statute and the implementing regulations. The Court of Claims held that the writ of garnishment was not "legal process" within the meaning of § 659(f) because the definition of that term in 42 U.S.C. § 662(e) requires that it be issued by a "court of competent jurisdiction," that the Alabama court was not such a court, because it did not have personal jurisdiction over respondent, and that therefore respondent was entitled to recover the amount claimed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that, when an obligor notifies the Government that the court issuing the garnishment order does not have personal jurisdiction over him, the order does not constitute "legal process regular on its face" within the meaning of § 659(f).

Held: The Government cannot be held liable for honoring a writ of garnishment, such as the one in question here, which is "regular on its face" and has been issued by a court with subject matter jurisdiction to issue such orders. Pp. 827-836.

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(a) The words "legal process" in § 659(f) must be read in light of the immediately following phrase -- "regular on its face." That phrase makes it clear that the term "legal process" does not require the issuing court to have personal jurisdiction. The plain language of § 659(f) cannot be escaped simply because the obligor may have provided some information casting doubt on the issuing court's jurisdiction over him. An inquiry into that court's jurisdiction over the obligor cannot be squared with that plain language, which requires the recipient of the writ to act on the basis of the "face" of the process. Pp. 827-829.

(b) The legislative history shows that Congress did not contemplate the kind of inquiry into personal jurisdiction that the Court of Appeals' holding would require. That history, as well as the plain language of § 659(a), also indicates that Congress intended the Government to receive the same treatment as a private employer with respect to garnishment orders, whereby, in the great majority of jurisdictions in the United States, an employer, upon complying with a garnishment order, is discharged of liability to the judgment debtor to the extent of the payment made. Moreover, burdening the garnishment process with inquiry into the issuing court's jurisdiction over the debtor would only frustrate the fundamental purpose of § 659 of remedying the plight of persons left destitute because they had no speedy and efficacious means of ensuring that their child support and alimony would be paid. Pp. 829-834.

(c) Controlling weight must be given to the implementing regulations that expressly provide that, when the Government receives legal process which, on its face, appears to conform to the laws of the jurisdiction from which it was issued, the Government is not required to ascertain whether the issuing authority had obtained personal jurisdiction over the obligor. These regulations cannot possibly be considered "clearly inconsistent" with the statute or "arbitrary," and they further the congressional intent to facilitate speedy enforcement of garnishment orders and to minimize the burden on the Government. Pp. 834-836.

708 F.2d 680, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the United States is liable for sums withheld from the pay of one of its employees because [104 S.Ct. 2771] it complied with a direction to withhold those sums contained in a writ of garnishment issued by a court without personal jurisdiction over the employee.

On December 27, 1976, respondent, a Colonel in the United States Air Force, was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. On that date Elmendorf's Finance Office received by certified mail a writ of garnishment, accompanied by a copy of a judgment against respondent that had been issued by the Circuit Court for the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Alabama in a divorce proceeding. The writ, which was in the regular form used in Alabama, directed the Air Force to withhold $4,100 of respondent's pay to satisfy sums due under the judgment "for alimony and child support." The Finance Office promptly notified respondent that it had received the writ. On advice from an Air Force attorney, respondent told the Finance Office that the state court's order was void because the Alabama court had no jurisdiction over him. Nevertheless, the Finance Officer honored the writ and paid $4,100 to the Clerk of the Alabama court, deducting that amount from respondent's pay. Subsequently, additional writs of garnishment were served on the Air Force with similar results.

Respondent apparently never made any attempt to contest the garnishment itself beyond his initial protest to the Elmendorf Finance Office.1 Eventually, however, he in effect

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collaterally attacked the garnishment by bringing this action against the United States to recover the amounts that had been withheld from his pay and remitted to the Alabama court. The Government took the position that it had a complete defense, since Congress has by statute provided:

Neither the United States, any disbursing officer, nor governmental entity shall be liable with respect to any payment made from moneys due or payable from the United States to any individual pursuant to legal process regular on its face, if such payment is made in accordance with this section and the regulations issued to carry out this section.

42 U.S.C. § 659(f).

The trial judge first noted that the Alabama writ was on the regular form used by the Alabama courts. Thus, he did not disagree with the Government's position that the writ was "regular on its face" within the meaning of the statute. He held, however, that the writ was not "legal process" within the meaning of § 659(f) because the statutory definition of that term requires that it be issued by a "court of competent jurisdiction."2 He reasoned that the portion of the divorce decree ordering respondent to make alimony and child support payments had not been issued by a court of competent jurisdiction, because the Alabama court did not have personal jurisdiction over respondent. Since respondent was not domiciled in Alabama at the time of the divorce proceedings, and since Alabama did not then have a statute authorizing personal service on nonresidents for child support

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or alimony and could not assert jurisdiction under either its own law or the Due Process Clause because it lacked sufficient contacts with respondent, the trial judge concluded that the Alabama [104 S.Ct. 2772] judgment on which the garnishment orders were based was void for lack of jurisdiction. Accordingly, the trial judge held that respondent was entitled to recover the amounts withheld from his pay from the United States.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed, 708 F.2d 680 (1983). It concluded that, when an obligor notifies the Government that the court issuing the garnishment order does not have personal jurisdiction over him, the order does not constitute "legal process regular on its face" within the meaning of the statute. Judge Nies dissented, reasoning that the statute required only that the state court have subject matter jurisdiction to enter the writ of garnishment, and that the notice respondent had provided the disbursing officer did not affect the question whether the Alabama court was a "court of competent jurisdiction."

Because the holding of the Federal Circuit creates a substantial risk of imposing significant liabilities upon the United States as a result of garnishment proceedings, and because the decision below created a conflict in the Circuits,3 we granted the Government's petition for certiorari, 465 U.S. 1004 (1984).

I

Ten years ago, Congress decided that compensation payable to federal employees, including members of the Armed Services, should be subject to legal process to enforce employees' obligations to provide child support or make alimony payments. Section 459(a) of the Social Services Amendments of 1974, 88 Stat. 2357-2358, was enacted as a result. As amended, it currently provides:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, effective January 1, 1975,...

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