Hayward v. Scorte, 2020 IL App (1st) 190476, reads like a creditors’ rights practice manual for its detailed discussion of the nature and scope of various creditor remedies under the Illinois supplementary proceedings and garnishment statutes.  (735 ILCS 5/2-1402 and 735 ILCS 5/12-701 et seq., respectively.)

The plaintiffs confirmed a half-million dollar arbitration award against a corporate defendant in a construction dispute and sought to collect. In post-judgment discovery, the post-judgment court (the Law Division’s Tax and Misc. Remedies Div.) found that the corporate debtor’s two owners failed to properly respond to citations served upon them by plaintiffs’ counsel.

The trial court entered a conditional judgment (later converted to a final one) against each corporate officer for the full amount of the underlying judgment.  The officers appealed.

Reversing, the First District first noted that supplementary proceedings in Illinois allow a judgment creditor to pursue any assets in the judgment debtor’s possession or that are being held by third parties and apply those assets to satisfy the judgment. See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402.

In the garnishment context, 735 ILCS 5/12-701 et seq., where a third party fails to respond to a garnishment summons, the creditor garnisher can request a conditional judgment against the garnishee. 735 ILCS 5/12-706.

Once the conditional judgment is entered, the creditor issues a summons to the respondent.  If the respondent still fails to answer the garnishment summons, the conditional judgment is confirmed or finalized. Once the garnishee responds to the conditional judgment summons, it isn’t bound by the earlier default and can litigate afresh. [21]

Section 12-706’s twin goals is to provide an incentive for respondents to answer a properly served garnishment summons and to protect a respondent from Draconian consequences of a single oversight. 735 ILCS 5/12-706. [21]

Code Section 2-1402 permits a court to enter any order or judgment that could be entered in a garnishment proceeding. 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(k-3).

But while Section 2-1402(k-3) incorporates the garnishment act’s full range of remedies, the section does not give a creditor broader rights than exist under garnishment law.  [23]

Conditional judgments are only allowed where a garnishee fails to appear and answer.  Here, the third-party respondents (the two corporate officers) did appear and answer the citation; the trial judge just deemed the answer incomplete.

The Court then noted that garnishment act Section 12-711(a) speaks to the precise situation here: it allows a judgment creditor to challenge the sufficiency of a garnishee’s answer and request a trial on those issues.  735 ILCS 5/12-711(a).

The garnishment statute is silent on the consequences of incomplete or insufficient answers.  Since the corporate officers did answer the underlying citations, the Court held that the trial court lacked statutory authority to enter a full money judgment against the individual defendants under Code Section 2-1402(k-3). [26]

Next, the Court examined the interplay between Section 2-1402(c)(3) and (c)(6).  The former section speaks to situations where a third party has embezzled or converted a judgment debtor’s assets.  The latter permits a  judgment creditor to sue a third party (i.e. to bring a separate cause of action) where that third party is indebted to a judgment debtor.

The Court pointed out that neither section allowed a court to assess the entire underlying judgment against a third party without a specific finding that party converted or embezzled a debtor’s assets. [27]

In fact, the lone statutory basis for a court to enter a full judgment against a third-party is where it violates the citation’s restraining provision – Section 2-1402(f)(1).

This section allows a court to punish a third party that transfers, disposes of or interferes with a judgment debtor’s non-exempt property – after a citation is served – by entering a money judgment for the lesser of (a) the unpaid amount of a judgment or (b) the value of the asset transferred. [27, 28]

The Court then stressed that a citation lien applies only to property transfers occurring after a citation is served.  Pre-citation transfers, by contrast, cannot form the basis of a money judgment against a third party.  Since the plaintiffs’ conditional judgment motion was predicated in part on property transfers occurring some two years before the citations were issued, they fell beyond the scope of sanctions considered by the trial court.

An additional ground for the First District’s reversal lay in the absence of proof that the corporate officers held any corporate assets.  Illinois law is clear that before a court can enter a judgment against a third party, there must be some record evidence that the third party possesses assets belonging to the debtor.

Since there was no statutory bases to assess the full money judgment against the two erstwhile corporate principals and since there was no evidence either principal had any corporate debtor assets in their possession, the trial court overstepped by entering a money judgment against the individual corporate officer defendants.

Take-aways:

A third party must be in possession of a debtor’s assets before a money judgment can issue against that third party;

While the garnishment act allows for a conditional judgment where a respondent fails to appear and answer a garnishment summons, and Illinois’s supplementary proceedings statute incorporates garnishment remedies, the garnishment act does not permit a conditional judgment against a garnishee who does in fact answer a garnishment summons;

A judgment creditor should file a separate veil-piercing suit against a defunct corporation’s principals if the creditor believes they are holding erstwhile corporate assets.