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Garnish Member’s Salary to Collect Past Due Assessments Without Having to Foreclose

Creditors’ Rights & Commercial Litigation

Garnish Member’s Salary to Collect Past Due Assessments Without Having to Foreclose


Jay Nussbaum
Berlandi Nussbaum & Reitzas LLP

Legislatures nationwide have been seeking ways to make it harder for community associations to foreclose on members who owe money to the association. Because of a few high-profile cases, the political climate is such that many of these state legislatures may succeed. But your association still needs to collect assessments, fines, and late fees in order to operate. So what can you do to collect without having to resort to the drastic measure of foreclosure? One thing you can do if you’ve already gotten a money judgment in court against the member and you know where the member works- is to garnish the member’s salary. Often called “wage garnishment,” this allows you to collect a certain percentage of the member’s net salary until the judgment is paid off. It’s available to collect past due assessments, fines, and late fees in every state except Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  Garnishing wages is the most effective tool associations have to collect money owed to them, according to Paul Williams of ACA International. We’ll give you the basics on wage garnishment and the six steps you must take to garnish a member’s wages.

Garnishment Basics

Garnishment specifics vary from state to state. But in nearly all states, you must first have a court judgment that orders the member to pay you money. The procedure after you get the judgment will depend on the laws of your state, but it usually involves your filling out court forms and giving them to your county sheriff to deliver to the member’s employer. (In legal terms, this is called “serving” the employer. See the box on p. 27 for tips on how to find the employer). Once the sheriff serves the employer, the employer will take out money from the member’s paycheck and send you a check, either directly or through the sheriff. It’s illegal for the employer to ignore the garnishment forms or to fire the member because of them, says Williams. Federal law limits the amow1t you can garnish. In most cases, you can’t collect more than 25 percent of a person’s net weekly earnings after taxes, Social Security, and other required deductions are taken out. Some state laws also limit how much you can garnish. For example, in New York, you can get only 10 percent, and in Wisconsin, you can get only 20 percent, says Williams.

PRACTICAL POINTER: Consult your attorney if you want to garnish the salary of a federal employee or an active member of the military, Williams warns. Different rules apply that often involve specific and highly complex forms and procedures, and if you fail to follow them precisely, your garnishment request will be denied, he says.

Can You Do It Yourself?

It’s smart to use an attorney or a collection agency when you garnish a member’s wages, says Williams. But some managers handle wage garnishment on their own. Consider these factors in making your decision:

  • Complexity of garnishment procedure in your state. For example, if you must file the forms in court, as some states require, you may need an attorney.
  • Size of your community. If your community is large or you manage many  communities, it’s probably cost effective to use an attorney or a collection agency.
  • Experience with other legal processes. If you’re comfortable filling out legal papers, you might be able to garnish wages on your own.

Is It Worth It?

Before filling out the garnishment forms and paying the court or sheriff’s fee, evaluate whether garnishment is worth your time and money, says Robin Hein, a Georgia attorney. With small judgments, it’s often not worth it, explains John McMillan, a Florida attorney. Figure out how much it will cost to garnish, including your time. If this amount exceeds the judgment, don ‘t garnish, says McMillan.

Here are the factors to consider:

  • Amount of judgment. There’s no cutoff point as to how much a member must owe for you to garnish his wages, says McMillan. But as a general rule, if the judgment is less than a few hundred dollars, it’s probably not worth it, he says. For example, if you have a $300 judgment and garnishment fees cost $1 00, it’s not worth it to garnish. On the other hand, if a member owes you a few thousand dollars, it’s probably worth the work.
  • Fees. Depending on your state, the fees may end up costing more than the judgment. For example, in Florida, you must pay a $100 deposit (refundable only if the sheriff can’t serve the employer) and a sheriff’s fee, says McMillan. But in California, according to Brian Stevens, a California collections expert, you pay only $7 for the garnishment forms and $25 for the sheriff.
  • Type of job. In some situations, you can predict that the member will quit the job once his salary is garnished, says Stevens. For example, a restaurant busboy probably won’t stick arow1d if his wages are garnished, he says. Look at how long the member has been at the job, the job’s skill level, and whether the nature of the job would make it likely that the member would leave it.
  • Member’s salary. Sometimes the employee’s salary is too low and you won’t be able to garnish, says Williams. Federal and state laws prevent you from garnishing the salary of a person whose weekly earnings arc below a certain level. Sometimes you won’t know the member’s salary, says Hein, until after the sheriff serves the forms and the employer calculates how much to withhold.
  • Location of member’s job. If the member’s job is in another state, you’ll have to file more legal forms. You’ll also have to sue the member by filing a judgment in that state’s court.


Here are the six basic steps you’ll need to take to garnish a member’s wages:

Step #1: Get Forms for Garnishing Wages

When you get a court judgment, tell the court clerk you want to “execute,” or enforce, the judgment by garnishing the member’s wages. Ask the clerk what forms you need, the fees involved, and what steps to take, says Williams. If your judgment is mailed to you, you’ll have to go to the court to get the forms you need and ask about the fees, he says. The forms you need will vary from state to state. For example, in many states, like Tennessee and California, you’ll need to get what’s known as a “writ of  execution.”  In Arizona, you’ll need a “writ of garnishment.” In some states, like Florida, you’ll need both. In Georgia, you’ll need an “affidavit for continuing garnishment” and a “summons of continuing garnishment.”

Step #2: Fill Out Forms

Fill out the forms required in your state. The forms authorize the employer to withhold money from the member’s paycheck for you. You may need the following information to fill out the forms: the name and current address of the member (if he’s no longer living in the community), the member’s Social Security number, the member’s employer, the amount of the judgment, the fees, and so on. You can get most of the information from your court judgment. When filling out the forms, make sure you get the name of the member’s employer right. Don’t use a shorthand version, says Hein. If the employer isn’t accurately named in the forms, it may be legally able to refuse to garnish the member’s wages.

Step #3: File Forms with Court, if Required

Depending on what state and county you’re in, you might have to file the forms with the court. For example, in Georgia and California, you must do this. But in New York, you can just fill out the forms and give them to the sheriff-no court fi ling is required. If you must file the forms, you ‘ll need to pay a court fee. In some states, you must first try to collect on the judgment on your own and/or wait until the member has a chance to appeal tJ1e judgment before you can file garnishment forms, Williams notes. For example, in West Virginia, you must wait 20 days after getting a judgment before fi ling the forms. In California, you must wait 30 days for a small clain1s filing, says Stevens.

Step #4: Give Forms to Sheriff to Serve Employer

Once you file the forms in court (if required), give the completed copy of the forms to your county sheriff. Your sheriff or  Marshall will then serve the garnishment forms on the employer. Depending on how busy the sheriff is, it may take a week or so before he serves the forms, says Stevens. Once the sheriff serves the employer, says Stevens, the employer must comply with the garnishment order.

In most states, the clerk of the court will then notify the member of the proposed garnishment. In some states, like Florida, you don ‘t  have to notify the member, says McMillan. In other states, like Colorado, you must serve the forms on the employer and the member yourself. If your state requires you to serve the forms yourself, ask your attorney for help or ask the clerk of the court how to serve the forms. Depending on your state, the employer will either pay you directly or send payment to the court, which will then send you a check. Or the employer will send the check to the sheriff, who will then send the check to you. You’ll get a check either every month or every other month.

In some states, like Colorado, you can garnish for only a certain time period. Then you must re-file new garnishment forms. In many states, though, you need only one set of garnishment forms, and you may continue to garnish an individual’s salary until the judgment is paid off.

Step #5: Pay Fee to Sheriff

You must pay a sheriff If’s fee to cover costs. For example in New York, the sheriff ‘s fee is approximately $60. Once the forms are served, don’t r—- ————————, expect a refund, even if the member offers to settle and you never actually garnish wages. After all, the sheriff’s job is to serve the forms, not to ensure collection of the money.

Step #6: Collect Money Each Month

Once the sheriff serves the employer, the employer may have to wait a certain number of days, depending on your state’s Jaw, before taking the money out of the member’s wages. For example, in California, an employer must wait I 0 days after getting the garnishment forn1s, says Stevens. In other states, an employer must wait 30 days, says Williams. This gives the member a chance to challenge the garnishment. For example, he may claim that the garnislm1ent imposes an undue hardship on him because he can’t support his family. After the waiting period is over, the employer should begin taking money from the member’s paycheck (assuming that the member doesn’t challenge the garnishment). But if the member has other judgments against him that are already being garnished, they will take priority.

How to Track Down Where Member Works

To garnish a member’s wages. you must find out where the member works. Here are a few ways of doing this.

Prejudgment discovery. Because you’ll first have to get a judgment against the member before you can garnish his wages. you’ll have an opportunity during the lawsuit’s discovery process to find out where he works. says Georgia attorney Robin Hein. Whether in a  deposition (where your attorney gets to ask the member questions face to face). or interrogatories (written questions that the member answers and sends back to your attorney in writing). ask the member if he has a job and. if so. where he works. These questions are usually permissible at this stage of a lawsuit. says Hein.

Employer and phone number. If you call the employer the member told you about during the lawsuit and he no longer works there. ask if the employer’s human resources department has a forwarding phone number for the member’s current employer. Be sure to get the full  company name so that you have the correct formal name to put on the garnishment forms.

Employment supervisor. If the employer’s human resources department doesn’t have forwarding information for the member. his former supervisor may have the information. says Brian Stevens, a California collections expert.

Social Security number. If you know the member’s Social Security number you may be able to pull his credit report. Sometimes the person’s present employment is listed on the report, says Stevens. But Stevens warns that credit reporting bureaus have specific rules about the reasons for which they’ll allow you to see credit reports, so you’ll have to check with the bureau, your collection agency, or your attorney.

Emergency contacts. If you have emergency contacts for the member. You can call them and ask in a polite tone where you can reach the member. Says Stevens. “Sometimes this works:· he says, “and the person will tell where you can find the member:· If the person asks who you are, you can identify yourself. says Stevens. Be careful what you say about the member when you call the employer or other contacts. Be professional and don’t mention that you’re collecting money the member owes the association, says Hein. The member could sue you for slander or defamation-that is, saying untrue things that damage his reputation.

How to Avoid Violating Fair Debt Collection Practices

Creditors’ Rights & Commercial Litigation

How to Avoid Violating Fair Debt Collection Practices Act When Trying to Collect Member Debts


Jay Nussbaum
Berlandi Nussbaum & Reitzas LLP

When a member doesn’t pay her monthly assessment or other money she owes the association, it’s often up to the manager to try to collect what’s owed. But a manager can inadvertently run into trouble when trying to collect a member debt. A federal law- the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the Act)-govems what a manager may legally do. And it’s easy to violate the Act without realizing it. We’ll explain how the Act applies to managers, and what they must do to comply with it. Check with your attorney before implementing any of the suggestions given here, because many states have their own debt collection laws that managers must follow also.

Who Must Comply with Act?

The Act was passed to bar “debt collectors” from harassing debtors. It applies to anyone who regularly collects or attempts to collect debts owed to someone else, says California attorney Jon H. Epsten. lt doesn’t apply to a creditor that’s trying to collect its own debts-for example, an association that sends a member a demand for a past-due assessment. Does the Act apply to managing agents of community associations? There are conflicting opinions on this issue, says California attorney Sandra Gottlieb. She

knows of one case where the manager was found liable for failing to comply with the Act but has seen other cases turn out differently. Many times it depends on what a court thinks of the facts of the particular case. So the safest course for all managers to take is to comply with tbe Act, says Gottlieb.

What Collections Are Covered by Act?

The Act applies only to situations where the member is a person, not where it’s a corporation, partnership or trust, or other entity, says Epstcn. So if the association is seeking to collect an association debt from, say, a corporation that owns a unit in the community, it needn’t comply with the Act, he points out. Also, some federal courts have ruled that community association assessments aren’t “debts” at all. If your association is located in a part of the country covered by these federal court rulings, the Act doesn’t apply to efforts to collect a past-due assessment from a member. Check with your attorney to learn more about

the law in your locality.

Penalties for Violating Act

The penalties for violating the Act can be harsh. First, the member is entitled to what’s called ” actual damages. “This includes not only any financial loss the member can prove but also things like emotional distress and slander. In fact, to win a case under the Act, the member doesn’t have to prove financial damages at all. Second, the member can collect up to $1 ,000 in what’s called “additional damages.” If the debt collector is sued in a class action (which is a lawsuit brought by many people who claim to have been harmed by the same person in the same way), the debt collector could have to pay $1 ,000 to each person suing it, up to $500,000 or l percent of the debt collector’s net worth, whichever is less. Because many managers pursue hundreds of debts at a time, the possibility of being sued in a class action is quite real, warns California attorney Debora Zumwalt. Gottlieb knows of one association manager who was sued in a class action and had to pay $229,000. Finally, the member can collect her attorney’s fees and any costs.

PRACTICAL POINTER: One violation is all that’s needed to be potentially liable under the Act, says Epsten. The member doesn’t have to prove repeated violations or an ongoing course of inappropriate conduct.

How to Comply with Act

Here are I 0 dos and don’ts for complying with the Act:

  1. Disclose intentions to member in your first communication with her. In the debt collector’s first communication with the member, whether it’s by telephone or letter, he must say that he’s calling or writing to collect a debt and that any information he obtains will be used for that purpose. Then, in all subsequent communications, the debt collector must say that he’s calling or writing to collect a debt.  Epsten suggests adding the following statement to all initial letters: “This is a communication from a debt collector attempting to collect a debt, and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.” And he suggests adding the following statement to all subsequent letters: “This is a communication from a debt collector.
  2. Don’t contact member at unusual time. A debt collector shouldn’t contact the member to talk about the debt, either before 8:00 AM or after 9:00 PM or at any other time he knows to be inconvenient for her, unless she has given written permission to do so.
  3. Don’t contact member at work. If a debt collector knows that the member’s employer prohibits her from accepting personal calls at work, he may not call her there. Sometimes the debt collector isn’t sure if the employer has such a policy. In that case, it’s better  to err on the side of caution and not call the member at work. If the member provides a work number as a contact number for communicating about the debt, it’s okay to call her there, says Gottlieb.
  4. Deal with member’s attorney if she has one. If the member is represented by an attorney with regard to the debt- for example, if the member has declared bankruptcy-the debt collector must deal directly with the attorney. The debt collector is allowed to deal directly with a member who’s represented by an attorney only if her attorney fails to respond within a reasonable amount of time to his attempts to contact her, or if the attorney gives written permission to deal directly with the member.
  5. Don’t continue to contact member if she refuses to pay debt and says to stop calling and writing. If the member refuses to pay the debt and tells the debt collector that she wants him to cease communications with her, he must stop. At that point, he may contact the member only to tell her:
    1.  That he’ll no longer be trying to collect the debt;
    2. That he’s considering other options and what those options are; or
    3. Specifically, what he’s going to do-for example, bring a lawsuit against her to collect the debt. say or imply that he has started a lawsuit if he hasn’t. Nor should he say anything else that’s misleading, warns Zumwalt. The Act forbids any false, deceptive, or misleading communications. And the test a court will use to decide whether a communication was misleading is to decide whether the communication would mislead the least sophisticated person, she says.
  6. Don’t do anything that would harass member. The Act specifically says that debt collectors may not do anything that would have the natural effect of harassing, oppressing, or abusing the member. Among the types of behavior to avoid, according to Epsten, are using obscene or abusive language, publishing a list of delinquent members in the community newsletter, threatening violence, making an excessive number of calls, or sending an excessive number of letters.
  7. Include validation notice in first written communication, or send one within five days of first oral communication. A validation notice must accompany the debt collector’s first written communication or be sent within five days of his first oral communication, says Gottlieb. A validation notice is a written document that states the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor, and the following three legally required statements:
    1. Unless the member disputes the debt within 30 days of receiving the validation notice, the debt collector will assume that the debt is valid.
    2. lf the member notifies the debt collector in writing within 30 days of receiving the validation notice that the debt isn’t valid, the debt collector will get verification of its validity and mail that verification to her. (This verification will usually be backup data from the association or its management company, says Gottlieb.)
    3. For validation notices involving a creditor that isn’t the original creditor, the debt collector must also state that he’ll provide the member with the name and address of the original creditor if the member requests it in writing within 30 days of receiving the validation notice. If the member requests either verification or the name of the original creditor, the debt collector must suspend all collection activity until he gives her that information.
  8. Don’t have conversations with anyone but debtor or debtor’s attorney. With the exception of the association’s board members and attorney, a debt collector isn’t allowed to talk about the debt with anyone but the debtor or the debtor’s attorney. Debt collectors are often contacted by people other than the member to talk about the debt. Most of the time, these calls are perfectly legitimate, such as when an adult child of an elderly member calls. But unless the member has said it’s okay, a debt collector may not talk about the member’s debt with anyone other than the member or her attorney. If the debt collector gets a call from someone else, he should politely tell the caller that he’s not at liberty to discuss the matter, but if the member wants to give him permission to do so, the caller should have her write a letter to that effect. For the same reason, if the debt collector calls the member and has to leave a message, either with a person or on an answering machine, he shouldn’t mention that the call has to do with collecting a debt, advises Zumwalt. As far as the community newsletter is concerned, if the manager and not the association publishes it, the manager shouldn’t publish the names of members who are the subject of debt collections.
  9.  Debt collectors may contact someone other than member to find out where member is. If a debt collector is trying to locate the member, he can contact anyone he thinks might know the member’s whereabouts. But he must follow five rules:
    1. He must identity himself;
    2. If asked, he must identity his employer;
    3. He must state that he’s calling to confirm or correct location information about the member;
    4. He mustn’t mention that the member owes a debt; and
    5. He mustn’t contact the person more than once  unless the person asks him to or unless he feels that the information the person gave him is wrong or incomplete and the person now has the correct information. But if the debt collector knows that the member is represented by an attorney with regard to the debt, he can ‘t contact other people for location information, says Epsten.
  10. Don’t use envelopes that indicate correspondence is from debt collector. The Act prohibits debt collectors from marking their envelopes with anything that would expose the fact that the correspondence is from a debt collector. Most likely it’s okay to have the name of the management company or the company’s logo on the envelope, as long as it doesn’t imply that the Jetter has to do with a debt, says Epsten. But, for example, don’t include in the return address the words “Collection Department” or similar wording, he says. Also, the Act prohibits corresponding with the member by postcard.


• Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: 15 USC §§ 1692a-1692e