On September 8, 2015, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia entered an Order declaring Georgia’s post-judgment garnishment statue, O.C.G.A. § 18-4-60 et seq., unconstitutional. Strickland v. Alexander, Civil Action No. 1:12-CV-02735-MHS (N.D. Ga. Sept. 8, 2015) (granting plaintiff’s summary judgment motion). The basis for the court’s decision was that the garnishment statute fails to give debtors adequate notice about (1) what types of property may be exempt from garnishment under state and federal law and (2) the procedures for claiming available exemptions. The court also held that the statute violates due process rights because it fails to provide for a “prompt and expeditious” process for resolving exemption claims. As a result of this Order, Gwinnett County courts have been enjoined from issuing any garnishment summons until further notice.
On September 10, 2015, Gwinnett Court Clerk Richard T. Alexander issued a bulletin confirming that courts in Gwinnett County will stop issuing garnishment summonses until such time as the garnishment statute is either revised or the injunction is removed. Gwinnett courts will continue to accept garnishment filings, however, but no new summons will be issued. With respect to already-existing summons of garnishments (i.e., those that pre-date September 8, 2015) and to protect themselves legally, garnishee-employers should continue to submit regular answers along with garnished funds. However, court officials have been instructed to return any money submitted with the answer to the employer until further notice. Gwinnett courts will also not be disbursing to garnishers any funds already paid into the court.
Some other state courts in Georgia are taking a similar approach in light of the recent injunction. Fulton County Magistrate Court issued a Standing Order on September 14, 2015 regarding all current and prospective Magistrate Court garnishment cases. With respect to new filings, Fulton County Magistrate Court will continue to accept new garnishment cases but will be withholding the issuances of all summons and notices until further notice. With respect to current garnishment cases, the court will continue to accept answers from garnishee-employers but court officials have been instructed to stay the process and not disburse any funds already received by the court and to refuse to accept any money paid into the court’s registry going forward.
The federal court ruling may be altered by legislation or court rules in the future. For now, however, Georgia employers in the Northern federal district should continue responding to summons of garnishment as normal. Further, technically the finding of unconstitutionally does not apply to the middle or Southern federal districts, but there is a meaningful possibility of those districts following the lead of the Northern district.