Defendant Bank Not Liable for Permitting Judgment Debtor to Transfer Over $700,000 from Accounts

The Citation to Discover Assets to a Third Party or “third-party citation”  allows a judgment creditor to serve a citation on a third-party –  a bank, for instance – who holds property of the judgment debtor and attach that property until the court orders the property released.  See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(f)(1). 

The third-party citation prohibits the citation respondent from allowing any transfer or other disposition of debtor’s property pending further order of court or termination of the citation. 

When a bank is the third-party citation respondent, the creditor serves the citation upon the bank (either by personal service or certified mail) and upon receipt of the citation, the bank must freeze the debtor’s account until the court enters an order dismissing the citation or releasing the account. 

What’s simultaneously enticing (to a creditor) and sinister (to a debtor) about third-party citation practice is that the creditor doesn’t have to notify the debtor of the third-party citation until 3 business days have passed. 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(b).  This makes it next to impossible for a debtor to deplete his bank account(s) and hide funds – something which could easily happen if he caught wind of a creditor’s attempts to seize his accounts. 

Mendez v. Republic Bank, 2013 WL 3821532 (7th Cir. 2013), examines whether a bank that unfreezes the wrong bank accounts (and allows a judgment debtor to transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process) can be liable to the judgment creditor for violating a citation’s restraining provisions. 

The Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the bank was not liable to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff won a judgment and froze some 22 separate accounts of the corporate judgment debtor.  After several of the banks moved to quash various citations, the district court judge entered an order requiring that all bank accounts except for three (3) specified accounts be unfrozen. 

The defendant bank released from the citation two of the debtors’ accounts which totalled over $700,000 – all of  which of course was dissipated by the debtors within a few months. 

Plaintiff then moved to refreeze the accounts and to hold the bank liable for violating the citation restraining provision.

The District Judge, while originally siding with plaintiff, reversed herself and found the bank not liable.  The reason: the prior judge’s order requiring the bank to unfreeze accounts was ambiguous “at best” and the bank’s actions were a reasonable response to and interpretation of that order.  *4.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting that the prior judge’s order unfreezing certain accounts was poorly drafted and the defendant bank followed the most reasonable interpretation of the order. 

Acknowledging that under Illinois law, a citation respondent can be liable for any transfer that violates a citation’s restraining provisions (regardless of whether there is intent or contempt), the bank’s actions were reasonable in light of the order’s text.* 11. 

Take-away: In my experience, from a creditor’s standpoint, attaching a corporate debtor’s bank account via a third-party citation is often my only real chance of collecting anything on a judgment.  Any real estate is usually mortgaged to the hilt, and the corporate debtor often lacks sufficient accounts receivable, inventory or personal property to meaningfully make a dent in the judgment amount.  

This case shows why hyper-precision in drafting citation orders is critical in post-judgment enforcement proceedings.  If the order is not drafted by the parties (i.e. it’s prepared by the court) and it’s text is unclear, it is incumbent on a party to file a motion seeking clarification of the order. 

 

Collecting Your Illinois Judgment Part II: the Citation Order

Per my earlier post – neophyte collection lawyers often wonder what they should put in the order once the citation examination concludes.  Section 2-1402(c) sets forth several possible orders that can enter.

The Citation Respondent Appeared and Answered

Broadly, if the debtor appears and you conduct the examination, you can either dismiss or discharge the citation, continue it, or order a turnover of funds or property.  I enter a dismissal if the debtor fully complied and has no assets, I continue the proceedings if the debtor does not produce the requested documents, and I enter a turnover order if the debtor or a third-party answers that there are funds or property that can be applied towards the judgment.

For a third-party citation, typically issued to the debtor’s bank, I enter a dismissal order which provides that the bank turnover the non-exempt funds within 7 days.  If the bank fails to pay, I move for a Rule to Show Cause and entry of conditional judgment.  This gets the bank’s attention.

Another possible order on the citation return date is an installment payment order which I file with the court.  An example of this is found at: http://12.218.239.52/Forms/pdf_files/CCG0105.pdf.

Citation Fails to Appear

Surprisingly, debtors often fail to appear on the Citation return date.  When this happens, you ask for a “Rule” – shorthand nomenclature for Rule to Show Cause.  That’s also a pre-printed form found in the courtroom.  You fill out the required information and have it served personally on the debtor.  If the debtor fails to respond to the served Rule, you request a body attachment or “writ of attachment”.  That order will contain a $1,000 bond amount (usually), and should be placed with the Sheriff, who – at some point – will contact the debtor and physically bring him/her to the courtroom.

Collection counsel should familiarize themselves with House Bill 5434 – eff. July, 2012 (http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocNum=5434&GAID=11&DocTypeID=HB&LegId=65695&SessionID=84)

which added requirements specifically concerning body attachments.  Basically, no body attachment will issue until creditor obtains personal or abode service of a Rule to Show Cause on the debtor, there is a maximum $1,000 bond amount, and the body attachment expires after 1 year.

Collecting Your Cook County (IL) Judgment: A Primer

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735 ILCS 5/2-1402 and Supreme Court Rule 277 govern post-judgment or supplementary proceedings in Illinois. 735 ILCS 5/12-101 through 12-183 provide additional post-judgment specifics like the mechanics of levying on a debtor’s property, the seven-year period to enforce a judgment (12-108), the lien on debtor’s real estate and personal property, enforcement in other counties, etc.

The Citation to Discover Assets

The first step is to issue a Citation to Discover Assets and Citation Notice.  The Citation and Notice of Citation are pre-printed fillable forms found on the Cook County website.

On the form, I list the name of the creditor (my client), the debtor (the person we got a judgment against), the date and amount of judgment and address of debtor.  I attach a copy of the underlying judgment and include a Rider to the Citation asking for documents relating to the debtor’s assets.

In the Rider, I usually ask for State and Federal tax returns for the past 2-3 years, a years’ worth of bank statements, six most recent paystubs, title papers to cars and real estate, and a signed statement of personal and real assets.  I may also request documents pertaining to any stocks, bonds, securities, furnishings or electronic equipment.  The larger the judgment, the more painstaking I am in my Citation Rider requests.

Section 2-1402(b-1) now requires a creditor to include an Income and Asset Form with the Citation. The debtor is supposed to fill out and bring it to the Citation hearing.  A sample Income and Asset Form is included in the statutory text.

To “issue” the Citation, I take it to the 6th floor (Muni cases) or 8th floor (Law Division) pay $80 (usually) and get it certified by the Clerk.  I am then given the “return date” which is the day it is set for hearing.

The Citation hearing will be in Room 1401 of the Daley Center (if judgment is less than $30K) or Room 2503 if the judgment is over $30K (or for judgments entered in Law Division cases).  Chancery money judgment citations are scheduled before the Chancery judge.

Serving the Citation

Once the Citation is issued, I either place it with the Sheriff or a Special Process Server (SPS).  A citation can be served in the first instance by a process server (unlike a complaint and summons – which must first be placed with the county sheriff).  I’ve found that an SPS is usually more persistent and able to track down evasive debtors with better success than the county sheriff. For this reason, I almost always serve a Citation through an SPS.

But with a corporate debtor that usually has a registered agent, I will usually serve through the sheriff (since there is less chance of dodging service).

The Citation Examination

The examination often takes place in the glamorous Daley Center hallway!  Sometimes, the judge will allow you to do the exam in a jury room.  I’ve also agreed to conduct examinations at my office or opposing counsel’s office.  However, to avoid the stonewalling debtor situation, I usually prefer to do the examination at the courthouse so I can ask the judge to intervene if necessary.

On the Citation return date, if the debtor shows up, he is sworn in by the Clerk and I conduct the examination.  I ask myself: “If this person owed me money, and I really wanted it, what would I ask this person?”  Simple as that.

I first ask if the debtor brought the requested Rider documents – such as their  tax returns, bank records, motor vehicle title, pay stubs, etc.  More often than not, the debtor brings  nothing and I have to continue the hearing for another date.  Even if the debtor shows up empty-handed, I still conduct the examination but in the continuance order, I specify which documents the debtor must produce within 7 or 14 days.  I then continue the citation hearing for 3-4 weeks.  I also reserve the right to re-examine the debtor if the documents he produces raises additional questions.

If the debtor or his/her counsel is uncooperative, threatening  or verbally abusive during the citation exam (I’ve experienced all three), I stop the exam and simply say “I’m going to have the case called”.  Usually, that results in some cooperation.  If not, and the debtor persists in not cooperating (giving “I don’t know” answers to every question) I let the judge scold the debtor for being obstructionist. In my experience, collection judges have little tolerance for a debtor that is not taking the citation proceeding seriously.

At the examination, three key questions I focus on before I look through the debtors’ documents are: (1) is he/she employed?; (2) Does he/she have bank accounts?; and (3) does the debtor own real estate?

(1) Employment: If the debtor answers yes to Item 1 (debtor has job) – I issue a wage deduction against the debtor’s employer.  You can have 15% of debtors’ gross, pre-tax wages under Illinois law under the Wage Deduction statute: 735 ILCS 5/12-801 et seq.

(2) Bank Account: If debtor has a bank account, I find out where and immediately issue and send a third-party citation to the bank’s Keeper of Records and serve it by certified mail.

Once the debtor’s bank receives the third-party citation, the bank must freeze the debtor’s account until further order of court.  I usually wait 2-3 days to send the debtor notice of the third-party citation.  Otherwise, if the debtor catches wind of the third-party citation, he/she can race to the bank, empty his/her accounts and you will get nothing (and NOT like it).

(2)(a) The Third-Party Citation

I have found a third-party citation to be a very  powerful enforcement tool.  People don’t like it when they can’t withdraw money from their account (individual) or make payroll (corporate debtor).

But, more often than not, the debtor’s bank account has little or no money in it.

Illinois law also has a $4,000 catch-all exemption: a debtor can declare up to $4,000 in his account as exempt (this is good information for someone representing a judgment debtor).

Example: debtor’s bank answers the third-party citation that the debtor has $4,050 in his/her checking account.  The debtor could declare $4,000 exempt and you (the creditor) would only get a paltry $50.  The burden is clearly on the debtor to claim this exemption.

The third-party citation will have a separate “return date”.  I try to schedule both the underlying “first party” citation (the one against the debtor) and third-party citation (against the debtor’s bank, e.g.) on the same day.

If the bank (or other third party respondent) files an answer stating that the debtor does have funds on deposit, I request a Turnover Order.  This is a court order which requires the bank/third-party to remit funds to the creditor’s counsel.

Once the turnover order issues, I send it to the bank/third-party with a letter saying “enclosed please find a copy of today’s order requiring you to turn over the sum of $____ within 7 days.  Please remit to the undersigned and make your check payable to_____”.  If the bank fails to pay (a rarity), I move to vacate the dismissal of the third-party citation and request that a conditional judgment enter against the bank. This almost always gets the bank’s attention since it doesn’t want to deal with a money judgment against it.

(3) Real Estate

If the debtor owns real estate, I record a Memorandum of Judgment against the property.

The Memorandum of Judgment must be signed by the judge that entered the underlying judgment (not the 1401 judge).  So, if a Muni judge entered it (on the 11th floor), you must have that judge sign the Memorandum.  If you forget at the time of judgment, simply file a motion requesting the judge to sign the Memorandum.

I attach a legal description to the Memorandum of Judgment along with the real estate PIN number.  Then, I record the Memorandum in the Recorder of Deeds.  For a Chicago-land debtor, I record in the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.  This puts a cloud on the debtor’s title.  The lien will interfere with the debtor’s attempts to refinance or sell his property.

If there is equity in the real estate, I can file suit to foreclose the lien and force a sale of debtor’s property.  But, before I do this, I run a title search – or at least check Cook County Assessor’s and Recorder of Deeds site to determine any prior recorded liens on the property.

A prior mortgage or other lien will trump my judgment lien and can make foreclosing the lien ( forcing a sale of the property) cost-prohibitive.

If the debtor answers that he has non-exempt personal property (e.g. car, jewelry, furniture, etc)., I explore whether the client wants to levy on the property.  Usually, it involves placing documents with the Sheriff and posting a bond.  This is where 735 ILCS 5/12-101-183 comes into play.  Levying on personalty can be time-consuming and expensive.

Other exemptions a debtor can assert in citation/supplementary proceedings are found at Section 2-1402(b)(1) and include unemployment benefits, Social Security benefits, worker’s comp benefits, $2,400 in car, $15,000 in home, $4,000 catch-all exemption among others.

Conclusion

There are many more details and nuances to collecting on a judgment.  But the above steps are a good starting point for a collection attorney trying to enforce a judgment for his client.  I can tell you this: when you are able to recover monies in citation proceedings through dogged efforts, clients are very appreciative which is very gratifying.