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How Does A Court Enforce Its Judgment?

Congratulations! You won the lawsuit you filed! Now what? That depends on the state where the court is located, the type of lawsuit involved, and what you seek. Most lawsuits seek money, but they can also involve one party wanting another to do or refrain from doing something. This is a general overview from a partnership dispute lawyer of common steps you would take after a successful legal action to obtain the relief you seek.

Obtain A Judgment

You filed the lawsuit, making you the plaintiff against another party, the defendant. You may obtain a judgment:

  • There’s a trial, and the factfinder (the judge or jury) finds in your favor
  • Because the defendant never showed up or committed serious wrongdoing in the course of litigation (disobeyed court orders, committed perjury)
  • After the case settles, the judge orders the parties to comply with a settlement agreement 

The order signed by the judge would list what the defendant needs to do, how, and when.

Initiating Enforcement Proceedings

After the judgment is final (appeals are exhausted or the deadline to file for an appeal passes), you can begin enforcement proceedings. This usually involves filing a request with the court, often called a “writ of execution” or a similar term.

Enforcing The Judgment

Depending on the circumstances, the court may use different methods to enforce the judgment. According to Focus Law LA, for money judgments, there could be:

  • Wage garnishment: You can ask the court to order the debtor’s employer to withhold a part of their wages and send it to you
  • Bank levies: The court may order banks or other financial institutions holding the defendant’s funds to freeze and transfer them to you
  • Asset seizure and sale: The court may issue an order to seize and sell the defendant’s non-exempt assets (property, vehicles) to satisfy the judgment

If the result you seek is the defendant taking an action or refraining from acting:

  • Specific performance: The judge may order the defendant to perform particular actions outlined in the judgment
  • Contempt of court: If the debtor disobeys a judge’s order, the court may find them in contempt and impose sanctions, such as fines or even jail time

Each case is unique, and the degree to which a defendant may be reluctant to comply varies. If a defendant is ordered to provide a plaintiff with an amount of money they don’t have, depending on the reason for the lawsuit, the defendant may be able to obtain protection by going to federal bankruptcy court and asking that they be declared bankrupt. If they’re successful, your judgment may be one of many debts, and you could be one of several parties seeking payment. The judgment may only be partially fulfilled or not at all.

Additional Considerations

Debtor exemptions: Most states have laws protecting a certain amount of the debtor’s assets from seizure to prevent them from becoming destitute. There may also be a time limit for you to enforce your judgment. If you miss it, you will lose your right to obtain what you sought.

An important consideration before filing a legal action is whether the defendant is “judgment proof.” This means that even if you win your case, you won’t get what you want because they’re unable to do what you want and lack the assets you seek. If that’s the case, your lawsuit would be a waste of time and resources.

If you need help with a judgment, contact a lawyer near you.