Case of the Day: Berg v. Ciampa

The case of the day, Berg v. Ciampa (Mass. App. Ct. 2021), is a domestic (i.e., US interstate) recognition and enforcement case, but I think it will be of interest anyway. Deborah Berg and Karen Bedenbaugh obtained a money judgment against Elaine Ciampa in a Florida state court. Ciampa was a Massachusetts resident, and so Berg and Bedenbaugh brought an action in March 2019 against Ciampa in a Massachusetts state court. The action was a so-called “reach and apply” action, in which a creditor seeks to get at assets that belong beneficially to the debtor but are in the hands of another. And at the time, Massachusetts was one of only a few states that had not adopted the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (actually, the act passed the legislature in 2018, but its effective date was April 1, 2019). Therefore, it was necessary to bring an action on the judgment against Ciampa in order to obtain recognition and enforcement of the judgment against Ciampa herself in Massachusetts.

After the UEFJA became effective, Berg and Bedenbaugh, pursuant to the Act, filed a certified copy of the judgment in Boston Municipal Court, which was the appropriate court for that purpose under the statute, and the Florida thereafter became effective as a Massachusetts judgment. The Act provides that “a judgment creditor shall retain the right to bring an action to enforce a judgment instead of proceeding under” the Act. Ciampa argued that the words “instead of” meant that the statutory procedure was unavailable when the judgment creditor brings an action on the judgment.

The court rejected this reading of the statute. It noted that Berg and Bedenbaugh had not acted unfairly (for example, by seeking writs of execution in both cases), and that other states had similarly construed the statute not to forbid parallel proceedings. There was a real argument that Berg and Bedenbaugh could have obtained all the relief they sought, including the relief from the financial institutions named as reach and apply defendants, in the BMC, but the court pointed out that the amount in controversy would exceed the $50,000 procedural limitation on money damages cases in the BMC.

The decision seems correct as far as it goes. I would like to have seem some mention, though, of res judicata. On the one hand, it seems to me that once you domesticate a foreign judgment, whether via the UEFJA or by an action on the judgment, the judgment is res judicata, so you cannot bring a second action against the same defendant on the same claim. If the “claim” is the foreign judgment, it would seem to me that you can’t seek recognition and enforcement of the same foreign judgment twice. However, it’s pretty typical in Massachusetts practice at least to bring new actions seeking to recover funds from third parties (e.g., reach and apply actions, or trustee process actions) after obtaining a judgment, and in those cases, the judgment debtor is joined as a party. In that situation, you’re bringing an action on the prior Massachusetts judgment. So if Berg and Bedenbaugh had registered the judgment undertone UEFJA first, they probably then could have brought an action on the registered judgment naming the reach and apply defendants. So the situation in the case was really just an accident of timing that turned on the effective date of the UEFJA.

2 responses to “Case of the Day: Berg v. Ciampa”

  1. JMS

    Ted – both Restatements of Judgments and the vast majority of common law authority recognize an action on a judgment as an exception to the merger rule of res judicata. There are a few areas where states are split, such as an action on the judgment in the same state that rendered the original judgment as a way to try to escape statutory renewal procedures, but this decision is actually completely consistent with the traditional rule that a judgment doesn’t merge into another judgment so you can sue on it in as many jurisdictions as necessary to enforce it.

    1. Ted Folkman

      Yes, but is that true when both suits on the judgment are in the same jurisdiction? Maybe, but that seems odd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thank you for commenting! By submitting a comment, you agree that we can retain your name, your email address, your IP address, and the text of your comment, in order to publish your name and comment on Letters Blogatory, to allow our antispam software to operate, and to ensure compliance with our rules against impersonating other commenters.