In a two-sentence decision issued on September 12, 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court approved an advisory opinion issued by the State Bar of Georgia Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law. The advisory opinion interpreted existing Georgia case law as requiring any answer of garnishment filed in a court of record in Georgia to be signed by an attorney licensed to practice in that state. Consequently, as of September 12, all corporations must use a Georgia-licensed attorney to respond to any summons of garnishment issued by a state or superior court in Georgia. Failure to comply with this rule can result in a default (a stricken answer) in the garnishment proceeding and possible criminal sanctions for the unauthorized practice of law.
Despite existing case law, and even following issuance of the State Bar’s advisory opinion in June 2010, trial courts and clerks of court around Georgia did not require garnishment answers to be signed by a Georgia-licensed attorney. However, the Supreme Court’s formal approval of the State Bar’s interpretation now makes it “official” that a corporate garnishee’s human resources and payroll personnel, third-party vendors, PEOs, and in-house counsel may not sign garnishment pleadings (including “routine” answers) filed on behalf of the corporation in Georgia courts of record, unless the individual signing the pleading is licensed to practice law in Georgia. Yet, such personnel may continue to sign garnishment answers filed in Georgia magistrate courts, as they are considered courts of inquiry rather than courts of record.
In a concurring opinion by Justice David Nahmias, the Georgia Supreme Court seemed to encourage employers to lobby the Judicial Council and/or General Assembly for relief. Nevertheless, for now, corporate employers in Georgia that are served with summonses of garnishment in a Georgia court of record must ensure that any answers filed by the employer are signed by a Georgia-licensed attorney.