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Judge Works to Improve Garnishments

 

Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace

Some recent proposed changes to a garnishment form should make it easier for people who are representing themselves to understand what will actually happen at their garnishment hearing. 

After a plaintiff wins their lawsuit and obtains a judgment, often the best way for the plaintiff to actually get paid is to garnish the defendant’s salary. A court will not automatically start this process. The plaintiff, now known as the judgment creditor, must file additional paperwork.

The amount that can be taken from someone’s paycheck is up to 25 percent of their non-exempt weekly earnings. The defendant’s employer will withhold that amount from the defendant’s take home pay and will be ordered to instead give it to the plaintiff. 

If the amount being withheld triggers a hardship, then the defendant can request a hearing and ask a judge to reduce the amount being withheld to 15 percent. But here is where the process breaks down.

The current hearing request form is very misleading because it contains a line reading, “The judgment creditor does not have a valid judgment against me because” and then contains some blank lines where the defendant can write anything they want. The problem is that even though the form strongly infers otherwise, a defendant cannot challenge the judgment at the garnishment hearing.

If the defendant believes that there was not a factual basis for the judgment, then they should either appeal it or file a motion for reconsideration. If the defendant believes that the service was improper, then they should file a motion to set aside. However, none of these things will likely be discussed in detail at the garnishment hearing. 

I have sought and received feedback from other judges and from Superior Court Commissioners and have written a new garnishment form. I recently presented it and it was adopted by the Committee on Limited Jurisdiction Courts. There are additional approval authorities that must agree before the improved form will be adopted, but I am optimistic that we are on the correct path.

While this may seem like a great deal of effort to change an admittedly dull court form, few things are as significant as making sure that people representing themselves in our court system have the opportunity to succeed. People can be excused for feeling the predictable frustration that is generated when they show up thinking that a court hearing is for one purpose only to discover that it is for another. If I can help change that, it is a win for everyone.            

Judge Williams is the Justice of the Peace for the North Valley Justice Court. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.