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Judges split on court's role in garnishments with pro se debtors

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The Indiana Court of Appeals was divided on whether a trial court should assert exemptions in garnishment actions on behalf of debtors who aren’t represented by counsel.

In two opinions released today, Quincy and Shannon Branham v. Rodney Varble and Norman Chastain, No. 62A01-1004-SC-192, and Quincy and Shannon Branham v. Rodney and Carol Varble, No. 62A04-1004-SC-256, Quincy and Shannon Branham claimed the trial court acted contrary to law when it ordered them to pay $50 a month toward small-claims judgments, make repeated court appearances, and required Quincy seek five jobs per week.

The couple had trial consent judgments entered against them. They either stopped making payments or never paid toward the judgment. Ultimately they were ordered to pay $50 a month in each case. They appeared in court multiple times for each case.

In their case with the Varbles, the Branhams argued that the court “circumvented the statutory protections for earned income” by ordering them to pay $50 a month since the prior lawful garnishment order had been fruitless. The majority disagreed and upheld the order. Judge Terry Crone dissented, finding the Varbles didn’t meet their burden of showing that the Branhams had property not subject to exemptions.

In the Branhams’ case with Rodney Varble and Norman Chastain, the Branhams claimed on appeal that when a debtor is unrepresented, the court must protect the debtor’s constitutional rights and sua sponte determine what exemptions would be the least burdensome for the debtor. They didn’t enter any exemptions during the proceedings supplemental and weren’t represented by counsel. Again, the majority disagreed.

The judges split over the application of Mims v. Commercial Credit Corp., 261 Ind. 591, 307 N.E.2d 867 (1974). In Mims, the Indiana Supreme Court acknowledged that the general rule is that the burden is on the debtor to claim the exemption. If the debtor is represented pro se, then the court must determine which exemption would be least burdensome.

Judge Terry Crone wrote in his dissent that he believes that Mims unambiguously requires that trial courts assert exemptions on behalf of pro se debtors and that the majority construed it far too narrowly in the instant case.

“The supreme court has neither narrowed nor disavowed Mims since it was decided in 1974, and the fact that some trial courts may not follow Mims in the workaday world does not make that case any less binding on them or on us,” he wrote.

But the majority felt that to adopt Judge Crone’s view would essentially recast the role of the judiciary from traditional decision-making to one of advocacy for the parties and that the procedure proposed in Mims was specific to the case before it. No other case has adopted the interpretation of Mims proposed by Judge Crone, wrote Judge Ezra Friedlander.  

In both cases, the judges also were divided on the repeated court appearances issue; the majority found the trial court didn’t err, while Judge Crone dissented because he felt the creditors didn’t show new facts that justified a new order or examination. He would reverse the entire order and order further proceedings supplemental stayed until the creditors could show the new facts justifying the new order.

The three judges did agree that in both cases, the trial court overstepped its authority and abused its discretion in requiring Quincy to seek alternative employment by submitting five applications a week and reversed that part of the court’s order.
 

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  1. Family court judges never fail to surprise me with their irrational thinking. First of all any man who abuses his wife is not fit to be a parent. A man who can't control his anger should not be allowed around his child unsupervised period. Just because he's never been convicted of abusing his child doesn't mean he won't and maybe he hasn't but a man that has such poor judgement and control is not fit to parent without oversight - only a moron would think otherwise. Secondly, why should the mother have to pay? He's the one who made the poor decisions to abuse and he should be the one to pay the price - monetarily and otherwise. Yes it's sad that the little girl may be deprived of her father, but really what kind of father is he - the one that abuses her mother the one that can't even step up and do what's necessary on his own instead the abused mother is to pay for him???? What is this Judge thinking? Another example of how this world rewards bad behavior and punishes those who do right. Way to go Judge - NOT.

  2. Right on. Legalize it. We can take billions away from the drug cartels and help reduce violence in central America and more unwanted illegal immigration all in one fell swoop. cut taxes on the savings from needless incarcerations. On and stop eroding our fourth amendment freedom or whatever's left of it.

  3. "...a switch from crop production to hog production "does not constitute a significant change."??? REALLY?!?! Any judge that cannot see a significant difference between a plant and an animal needs to find another line of work.

  4. Why do so many lawyers get away with lying in court, Jamie Yoak?

  5. Future generations will be amazed that we prosecuted people for possessing a harmless plant. The New York Times came out in favor of legalization in Saturday's edition of the newspaper.

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