01.31.2024 | Articles

Sidebar Discussions 2024

Sovereign Immunity—The Commonwealth Not Bound To Honor A Trustee Wage Attachment

In Eno v McGinn, Gregory Eno was severely injured when the defendant McGinn drove her car over him three times. McGinn was convicted of leaving the scene of an accident and negligent operation of a motor vehicle. Gregory Eno then obtained a civil judgment against McGinn in November of 1999. Gregory Eno passed away in 2015, never having received payment from McGinn.

In 2018, Gregory Eno’s father, Walter, moved to substitute himself for Gregory and holds an amended judgment in the amount of nearly $5 million.

McGinn did not pay the judgment, so Walter obtained a wage garnishment order in the form of a writ of trustee attachment, and served McGinn’s employer, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Commonwealth refused to honor the writ of attachment and thereby garnish McGinn’s wages. Walter objected to this refusal, but the Superior Court sided with the Commonwealth, and Walter appealed.

The Appeals Court stated that while trustee process is an appropriate method, for intercepting a defendant’s wages in order to satisfy a judgment, this process is subject to the long-recognized principle “that trustee process actions against the Commonwealth are barred by sovereign immunity.” The Court explained that “[s]overeign immunity is an ancient doctrine [that] … protects the public treasury against money judgments and public administration from interference by the courts at the behest of litigants except in instances and by procedures the Legislature has authorized.”

The Court added that while the Commonwealth could not be compelled to comply with a trustee process attachment, it could have complied if it chose to do so. In this case, the Commonwealth declined to honor the trustee attachment and neither Walter nor the Court could challenge that decision. However, Walter was not left completely out of luck. In a footnote, the Appeals Court left open the possibility of Walter seeking an attachment of McGinn’s wages after they are paid to McGinn and deposited in her bank account, or by seeking a payment order in a separate proceeding in which the Commonwealth would not be a party.

Still, it seems unjust that the sovereign can honor or reject a trustee process attachment at its whim, especially because the funds at issue once owed as wages no longer were assets of the Commonwealth.

Post Date: 1/31/2024

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