United States v. Morton

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Morton
LOCATION: The D&B Corporation

DOCKET NO.: 83-916
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 467 US 822 (1984)
ARGUED: Apr 25, 1984
DECIDED: Jun 19, 1984

ADVOCATES:
Kaletah N. Carroll - on behalf of the respondent
Michael W. Mc Connell - on behalf of the petitioner
Michael W. McConnell - for petitioner, pro hac vice by special leave of Court

Facts of the case

Question

Media for United States v. Morton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 25, 1984 in United States v. Morton

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in United States against Morton.

Mr. McConnell, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Michael W. Mc Connell:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the United States in its capacity as employer and garnishee is required to reimburse an employee for sums deducted from his paycheck in compliance with the facially valid state court writ of garnishment enforcing a judgment for alimony and child support.

The state court subsequently was found not to have had personal jurisdiction over the employee respondent here in the underlying divorce proceeding.

The legal framework under which this case arises is a federal garnishment statute, 42 USC 659, which waives federal sovereign immunity and subjects federal agencies to suit in the capacity as garnishee to enforce alimony and child support in like manner and to the same extent as any private garnishee and which expressly immunizes the United States from liability for honoring any legal process regular on its face.

The facts of this case are quite simple when viewed from the perspective of a federal disbursing officer whose only responsibility is to ensure that the garnishment writ is regular on its face.

In August, 1975, respondent's wife obtained a divorce, including alimony and child support, pursuant to a default judgment in Alabama state court.

Over a year later, in December, 1975, the Air Force Finance Office at Elmundorf Air Base in Alaska was served a writ of garnishment to collect arrearages in Colonel Morton's obligations under the divorce decree.

You left out that he was served on the case itself from Alabama by mail.

Michael W. Mc Connell:

That's correct, Your Honor.

The Air Force Finance Office received two documents.

It received a writ of garnishment and it received a copy of the underlying judgment of divorce issued by the Alabama state court.

The disbursing officer attached... assigned to the case applied the usual procedures in processing it, examining the document to make sure that it was one that qualified under the statute.

He looked first to see if it was issued by a court of competent jurisdiction.

In this case, the writ was issued by the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court of the state of Alabama, which is a court of general jurisdiction, and unquestionably is a court competent to issue a writ of garnishment.

He checked second to see if the writ was to enforce an order for child support or alimony.

Since the federal garnishment statute does not permit garnishment for other purposes, such as rent or commercial loans or the like, it is necessary to make sure that it is for child support or alimony.

In this case, the face of the writ revealed that the sums were being sought for that purpose.

Third, he checked to see if the writ was in the proper form, and as the trial court found as a fact, the writ of garnishment was in the proper form, the usual form used by the state of Alabama for writs of garnishment.

And finally, the officer examined the writ to see if there were any irregularities on the face of the writ which would suggest invalidity under state or federal law.

Now, I mentioned that there were two documents served on the Air Force.

The other document was a copy of the judgment of divorce.

Now, in this instance that document was not necessary for the processing of the writ.

Under the regulations of the Office of Personnel Management which implement this statute, it is necessary to file a copy of the underlying decree only when the writ itself does not make plain whether it was for child support and alimony alone, which is not uncommon, since some writs of garnishment do not specify the nature of the underlying obligation.

In this case, as I have said, the writ itself indicated that it was for child support or alimony.

Thus the second document was not necessary.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that a copy of the judgment of divorce was also regular on its face.

There are no irregularities apparent on the face of the document that would suggest invalidity, and in the first line of the judgment of divorce, it states that respondent was duly served and failed to appear in the divorce proceeding.

Upon receiving the writ, the finance office promptly notified Colonel Morton, who then sought legal advice.