Sniadach v. Family Finance Corporation of Bay View, No. 130

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtDOUGLAS
Citation23 L.Ed.2d 349,89 S.Ct. 1820,395 U.S. 337
PartiesChristine SNIADACH, Petitioner, v. FAMILY FINANCE CORPORATION OF BAY VIEW et al
Docket NumberNo. 130
Decision Date09 June 1969

395 U.S. 337
89 S.Ct. 1820
23 L.Ed.2d 349
Christine SNIADACH, Petitioner,

v.

FAMILY FINANCE CORPORATION OF BAY VIEW et al.

No. 130.
Argued April 21, 1969.
Decided June 9, 1969.

Jack Greenber, New York City, for petitioner.

Sheldon D. Frank, Milwaukee, Wis., for respondents.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents instituted a garnishment action against petitioner as defendant and Miller Harris Instrument Co., her employer, as garnishee. The complaint alleged

Page 338

a claim of $420 on a promissory note. The garnishee filed its answer stating it had wages of $63.18 under its control earned by petitioner and unpaid, and that it would pay one-half to petitioner as a subsistence allowance 1 and hold the other half subject to the order of the court.

Petitioner moved that the garnishment proceedings be dismissed for failure to satisfy the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court sustained the lower state court in approving the procedure. 37 Wis.2d 163, 154 N.W.2d 259. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari. 393 U.S. 1078, 89 S.Ct. 849, 21 L.Ed.2d 771.

The Wisconsin statute gives a plaintiff 10 days in which to serve the summons and complaint on the defendant after service on the garnishee.2 In this case petitioner was served the same day as the garnishee. She nonetheless claims that the Wisconsin garnishment procedure violates that due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment, in that notice and an opportunity to be heard are not given before the in rem seizure of the wages. What happens in Wisconsin is that the clerk of the court issues the summons at the request of the creditor's lawyer; and it is the latter who by serving the garnishee sets in motion the machinery whereby the

Page 339

wages are frozen.3 They may, it is true, be unfrozen if the trial of the main suit is ever had and the wage earner wins on the merits. But in the interim the wage earner is deprived of his enjoyment of earned wages without any opportunity to be heard and to tender any defense he may have, whether it be fraud or otherwise.

Such summary procedure may well meet the requirements of due process in extraordinary situations. Cf. Fahey v. Mallonee, 332 U.S. 245, 253—254, 67 S.Ct. 1552, 1554—1556, 91 L.Ed. 2030; Ewing v. Mytinger & Casselberry, Inc., 339 U.S. 594, 598—600, 70 S.Ct. 870, 872—873, 94 L.Ed. 1088; Ownbey v. Morgan, 256 U.S. 94, 110 112, 41 S.Ct. 433, 437—438, 65 L.Ed. 837; Coffin Bros. & Co. v. Bennett, 277 U.S. 29, 31, 48 S.Ct. 422, 423, 72 L.Ed. 768. But in the present case no situation requiring special protection to a state or creditor interest is presented by the facts; nor is the Wisconsin statute narrowly drawn to meet any such unusual condition. Petitioner was a resident of this Wisconsin community and in personam jurisdiction was readily obtainable.

The question is not whether the Wisconsin law is a wise law or unwise law. Our concern is not what philosophy Wisconsin should or should not embrace. See Green v. Frazier, 253 U.S. 233, 40 S.Ct. 499, 64 L.Ed. 878. We do not sit as a super-legislative body. In this case the sole question is whether there has been a taking of property without that procedural due process that is required by the Fourteenth Amendment. We have dealt over and over again with the question of what constitutes 'the right to be heard' (Schroeder v. New York, 371 U.S. 208, 212, 83 S.Ct. 279, 282, 9 L.Ed.2d 255) within the meaning of procedural due process. See Mullanev . Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 314, 70 S.Ct. 652, 657, 94 L.Ed. 865. In the latter case we said that the right to be heard 'has little reality or worth unless one is informed that the matter is pending and can choose for himself whether

Page 340

to appear or default, acquiesce or contest.' 339 U.S., at 314, 70 S.Ct., at 657. In the context of this case the question is whether the interim freezing of the wages without a chance to be heard violates procedural due process.

A procedural rule that may satisfy due process for attachments in general, see McKay v. MaInnes, 279 U.S. 820, 49 S.Ct. 344, 73 L.Ed. 975, does not necessarily satisfy procedural due process in every case. The fact that a procedure would pass muster under a feudal regime does not mean it gives necessary protection to all property in its modern forms. We deal here with wages—a specialized type of property presenting distinct problems in our economic system. We turn then to the nature of that property and problems of procedural due process.

A prejudgment garnishment of the Wisconsin type is a taking which may impose tremendous hardship on wage earners with families to support. Until a recent Act of Congress,4 § 304 of which forbids discharge of employees on the ground that their wages have been garnished, garnishment often meant the loss of a job. Over and beyond that was the great drain on family income. As stated by Congressman Reuss:5

'The idea of wage garnishment in advance of judgment, of trustee process, of wage attachment, or whatever it is called is a most inhuman doctrine. It compels the wage earner, trying to keep his family together, to be driven below the poverty level.'

Recent investigations of the problem have disclosed the grave injustices made possible by prejudgment garnishment whereby the sole opportunity to be heard comes after the taking. Congressman Sullivan, Chairman of

Page 341

the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs who held extensive hearings on this and related problems stated:

'What we know from our study of this problem is that in a vast number of cases the debt is a fraudulent one, saddled on a poor ignorant person who is trapped in an easy credit nightmare, in which he is charged double for something he could not pay for even if the proper price was called for, and then hounded into giving up his pound of flesh, and being fired besides.' 114 Cong.Rec. 1832.

The leverage of the creditor on the wage earner is enormous. The creditor tenders not only the original debt but the 'collection fees' incurred by his attorneys in the garnishment proceedings:

'The debtor whose wages are tied up by a writ of garnishment, and who is usually in need of money, is in no position to resist demands for collection fees. If the debt is small, the debtor will be under considerable pressure to pay the debt and collection charges in order to get his wages back. If the debt is large, he will often sign a new contract of 'payment schedule' which incorporates these additional charges.'6

Apart from those collateral consequences, it appears that in Wisconsin the statutory exemption granted the wage earner7 is 'generally insufficient to support the debtor for any one week.'8

The result is that a prejudgment garnishment of the Wisconsin type may as a practical matter drive a wage-

Page 342

earning family to the wall.9 Where the taking of one's property is so obvious, it needs no extended argument to conclude that absent notice and a prior hearing (cf. Coe v. Armour Fertilizer Works, 237 U.S. 413, 423, 35 S.Ct. 625, 628, 59 L.Ed. 1027) this prejudgment a rnishment procedure violates the fundamental principles of due process.

Reversed.

Mr. Justice HARLAN, concurring.

Particularly in light of my Brother BLACK'S dissent, I think it not amiss for me to make explicit the precise basis on which I join the Court's opinion. The 'property' of which petitioner has been deprived is the use of the garnished portion of her wages during the interim period between the garnishment and the culmination of the main suit. Since this deprivation cannot be characterized as de minimis, she must be accorded the usual requisites of procedural due process: notice and a prior hearing.

The rejoinder which this statement of position has drawn from my Brother BLACK prompts an additional word. His and my divergence in this case rests, I think, upon a basic difference over whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits state action by norms of 'fundamental fairness' whose content in any given instance is to be judicially derived not alone as my colleague believes it should be, from the specifics of the Constitution, but also, as I believe, from concepts

Page 343

which are part of the Anglo-American legal heritage—not, as my Brother BLACK continues to insist, from the mere predilections of individual judges.

From my standpoint, I do not consider that the requirements of 'notice' and 'hearing' are satisfied by the fact that the petitioner was advised of the garnishment simultaneously with the garnishee, or by the fact that she will not permanently lose the garnished property until after a plenary adverse adjudication of the underlying claim against her, or by the fact that relief from the garnishment may have been available in the interim under less than clear circumstances. Compare the majority and dissenting opinions in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, 37 Wis.2d 163, 178, 154 N.W.2d 259, 267 (1967). Apart from special situations, some of which are referred to in this Court's opinion, see ante, at 339, I think that due process is afforded only by the kinds of 'notice' and 'hearing' which are aimed at establishing the validity, or at least the probable validity, of the underlying claim against the alleged debtor before he can be deprived of his property or its unrestricted use. I think this is the thrust of the past cases in this Court. See, e.g., Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 313, 70 S.Ct. 652, 657, 94 L.Ed. 865 (1950); Opp Cotton Mills v. Administrator, 312 U.S. 126, 152—153, 61 S.Ct. 524, 535—536, 85 L.Ed. 624 (1941); United States v. Illinois Cent. R. Co., 291 U.S. 457, 463, 54 S.Ct. 471, 473, 78 L.Ed. 909 (1934); Londoner v. City & County of Denver, 210 U.S. 373, 385-386, 28 S.Ct. 708, 713—714, 52 L.Ed. 1103 (1908).* And I am

Page 344

quite unwilling to take the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
1465 practice notes
  • Hodgson v. Hamilton Municipal Court, No. 7954.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • July 31, 1972
    ...(page 17, reply brief), for all practical purposes "constitutionally defunct" under Sniadach v. Family Finance Corporation of Bay View, 395 U.S. 337, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 Ohio Revised Code § 1911.33(A) (county courts) and § 2715.11(A) (common pleas courts) clearly state that: "An a......
  • Lucas v. Wisconsin Electric Power Company, No. 71-1113.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • August 2, 1972
    ...defenses could be asserted in other proceedings to determine the ultimate rights of the parties. 27 Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337 at 343, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 (Mr. Justice Harlan 28 "The nature and form of such prior hearings, moreover, are legitimately open to man......
  • Thompson v. Washington, No. 71-2049.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • December 10, 1973
    ...interests has never been in doubt, but the extent of the protection has recently been extended. See Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 (1969) (wage garnishment); Fuentes v. Shevin, supra (summary repossession). And Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U......
  • Johnson v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, No. 83-7059
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • June 18, 1984
    ...18 (1976); Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67, 80-83, 92 S.Ct. 1983, 1994-1995, 32 L.Ed.2d 556 (1972); Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 It seems that all plaintiffs have been repeatedly receiving notice of the right to apply for a moratorium in each ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1463 cases
  • Hodgson v. Hamilton Municipal Court, No. 7954.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • July 31, 1972
    ...(page 17, reply brief), for all practical purposes "constitutionally defunct" under Sniadach v. Family Finance Corporation of Bay View, 395 U.S. 337, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 Ohio Revised Code § 1911.33(A) (county courts) and § 2715.11(A) (common pleas courts) clearly state that: "An a......
  • Lucas v. Wisconsin Electric Power Company, No. 71-1113.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • August 2, 1972
    ...defenses could be asserted in other proceedings to determine the ultimate rights of the parties. 27 Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337 at 343, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 (Mr. Justice Harlan 28 "The nature and form of such prior hearings, moreover, are legitimately open to man......
  • Thompson v. Washington, No. 71-2049.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • December 10, 1973
    ...interests has never been in doubt, but the extent of the protection has recently been extended. See Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 (1969) (wage garnishment); Fuentes v. Shevin, supra (summary repossession). And Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U......
  • Johnson v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, No. 83-7059
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • June 18, 1984
    ...18 (1976); Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67, 80-83, 92 S.Ct. 1983, 1994-1995, 32 L.Ed.2d 556 (1972); Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 It seems that all plaintiffs have been repeatedly receiving notice of the right to apply for a moratorium in each ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • RACE IN CONTRACT LAW.
    • United States
    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 170 Nbr. 5, May 2022
    • May 1, 2022
    ...opinion). (460) Douglas, supra note 443, at 52. (461) FLEMING, supra note 421, at 194. (462) Sniadach v. Fam. Fin. Corp. of Bay View, 395 U.S. 337, 341 (1969) (quoting Rep. Leonor K. Sullivan); FLEMING, supra note 421, at 198-99 (discussing Sniadach and other due process challenges to state......
  • From hearing to Listening: Access to Justice and Indirect Displacement
    • United States
    • Georgetown Law Journal Nbr. 110-1, October 2021
    • October 1, 2021
    ...‘at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.’” (quoting Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552 (1965))); Sniadach v. Fam. Fin. Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 339–40 (1969) (declaring that the requisite opportunity must be meaningful in fact as well as in theory). 2021] FROM “HEARING” TO LISTENING......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT