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PHILLIPS v. SUGRUE

May 4, 1995

KIMBERLY PHILLIPS, Plaintiff,
v.
FATHER TIMOTHY SUGRUE, Defendant, and MARIST SOCIETY OF THE WASHINGTON PROVINCE, INC., Garnishee.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES ROBERTSON

 This proceeding raises the question whether valuable but uncompensated services rendered by a judgment debtor to a garnishee may be subjected to garnishment under D.C. Code § 16-579 without proof that the garnishee is liable to the debtor.

 On November 2, 1993, after a jury verdict, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas entered a money judgment against Timothy Sugrue, a priest, for torts he committed against plaintiff while he was serving as a chaplain in the United States Air Force during the 1970s. Fr. Sugrue was then and is now associated with the Marist Society, a religious institute. Fr. Sugrue today lives "in community" at the Marist Society of the Washington Province, located in this District.

 On January 11, 1995, upon receipt of a certified copy of the Arkansas judgment, the Clerk of this Court issued a writ of attachment to the Marist Society. Returning the writ, and responding to the interrogatories set forth thereon, the Marist Society stated that Fr. Sugrue was not employed by the Society and that he received no disposable wages from the Society.

 D.C. Code § 16-579 was enacted as part of the Code of Laws for the District of Columbia in 1959, Pub.L. No. 86-130, § 1, 73 Stat. 277 (1959). It provides:

 
Where the judgment debtor claims or is proved to be rendering services to or employed by a relative or other person or by a corporation owned or controlled by a relative or other person, without salary or compensation, or at a salary or compensation so inadequate as to satisfy the court that the salary or compensation is merely colorable and designed to defraud or impede the creditors of the debtor, the court may direct the employer garnishee to make payments on account of the judgment, in installments, and upon a reasonable value of the services rendered by the judgment debtor under his employment or upon the debtor's then earning ability.

 Plaintiff argues that, on its face, the language of this statute provides a "special remedy" to a judgment creditor that is broader than traditional garnishment and does not depend on an employer-employee relationship. Since Fr. Sugrue is clearly "rendering services" to the Marist Society as its business manager and doing so "without salary or compensation," plaintiff asserts that she need only establish the reasonable value of those services in order to be entitled to a garnishment order directing the Marist Society to make installment payments based on that value. *fn1"

 Before the enactment of § 16-579 an essential element of garnishment was that the garnishee be holding property of the judgment debtor or have a legal obligation to pay the judgment debtor. In Lewis v. Smith, 2 Cranch C.C. 571, 15 F. Cas. 498 (D.C. Cir. 1825), it was held that if the judgment debtor himself could not recover against a garnishee, the judgment creditor could not do so. In Zink v. Black Star Line, Inc., 57 App. D.C. 114, 18 F.2d 156, 157 (D.C. Cir. 1927), it was observed that a judgment creditor's rights against a garnishee cannot be greater than those which the debtor would have in the absence of the garnishment.

 There is no evidence that Congress intended to ignore that venerable element of the garnishment process in the sparse legislative history of § 16-579, which is reviewed in IBF Corp. v. Alpern, 487 A.2d 593, 596 (D.C. 1985). No court has discovered such an intent in the handful of reported garnishment cases decided since 1959 that deal with garnishment generally: Donaldson v. Home Indemnity Co., 165 A.2d 492, 494 (D.C. 1980) (proof of liability under an insurance policy necessary to garnishment of policy proceeds); Peterson v. Government Employees Insurance Co., 434 A.2d 1389, 1391 (D.C. 1981) (same); Wrecking Corp. of America, VA., Inc. v. Jersey Welding, 463 A.2d 678, 680 (D.C. 1983) (whether garnishee was in fact indebted to judgment debtor or possessed any property belonging to the debtor was a critical factor).

 The only reported garnishment case that directly involves § 16-579 is IBF Corp. v. Alpern, supra. That case is factually distinguishable from this one. There the judgment debtor was the owner and president of the corporate garnishee -- a controlling person, unlike Fr. Sugrue. There, corporate arrangements may have been designed to "defraud or impede creditors of the debtor," while here there is no evidence that Fr. Sugrue's arrangement with the Marist Society was structured to avoid his responsibility to satisfy the Arkansas judgment. *fn2" The rule stated in Judge Ferren's opinion is not dependent upon the facts of that case, however, and it is here relied upon as a controlling statement of D.C. law:

 
A judgment creditor who seeks to attach property of an entity other than a debtor has the burden of proving that the entity is liable to the debtor.

 IBF Corp. v. Alpern, supra, at 596. That statement is consistent with the rest of the D.C. attachment and garnishment subchapter, which "applies only with respect to attachments upon wages," § 16-582, and which defines "garnishment" as a "procedure through which wages are required to be withheld," D.C. Code § 16-571(2), and "wages" as "compensation payable for personal services," § 16-571(1).

 At the hearing on the motion to compel payments, conducted April 27, 1995, plaintiff offered only to prove that Fr. Sugrue is performing services for the Marist Society and that he receives valuable benefits from the Marist Society. She did not establish, nor did she offer to prove, that Fr. Sugrue is in a legally binding employment ...


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