Case of the Day: Berg v. Ciampa

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The case of the day is Berg v. Ciampa (D. Mass. 2022). I wrote about the case in January 2022. According to the complaint, Oscar and Mary Nelson established an inter vivid trust for the benefit of their daughters, Mary Ann Birmingham and Elaine Ciampa. When Birmingham died, her daughters, Deborah Berg and Karen Bedenbaugh, each became beneficiaries of the trust. At the death of the Nelsons, Ciampa became trustee and, Berg and Bedenbaugh alleged, she began converting trust funds to her own use. Berg and Bedenbaugh sued Ciampa in a Florida state court and won a judgment of almost $500,000.

Ciampa did not pay the judgment. In 2019, Berg and Bedenbaugh brought an action in the Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston seeking to reach and apply funds that Fidelity Investments was holding for Ciampa. The court entered judgment for Berg and Bedenbaugh, which led to recovery of about $210,000.

You may ask why Berg and Bedenbaugh brought an action on the judgment instead of simply registering it under the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act. The reason is that Massachusetts was one of the few states that had not enacted the UEFJA. But shortly after the Fidelity judgment, Massachusetts adopted the statute. Berg and Bedenbaugh then registered the Florida judgment in the Boston Municipal Court and obtained a writ of execution. They recorded the execution in the Suffolk Registry of Deeds, where Ciampa owned real property, but because Ciampa held the property with her husband as tenants in the entirety, Berg and Bedenbaugh were unable to levy on the execution during the life of Ciampa’s husband. I love this stuff.

Ciampa appealed from the Superior Court judgment. I wrote about the Appeals Court’s decision in the post back in January. The court held that a judgment creditor was not precluded from bringing an action on the judgment and also registering the judgment. Although it’s well-established that if I have a judgment from State A and I bring an action on a judgment in State B, the decision in State B is not res judicata in State C, if I bring another action on the judgment there. But I raised the question whether it made any sense to refuse to apply the rule of res judicata when you bring a second action on a judgment in a single state. Once I get a Massachusetts judgment on a Florida judgment, shouldn’t that Massachusetts judgment be conclusive in Massachusetts? Look at this another way. Suppose I bring an action on a foreign judgment in Massachusetts and the court refuses to recognize the judgment for one reason or another. Do I get to bring successive lawsuits in Massachusetts to try to get a different result? The answer has to be no, which is just another way of saying that the first decision is res judicata.

Leaving aside res judicata, you might also ask why Berg and Bedenbaugh thought it necessary as a practical matter to register the judgment, since they had already obtained a Massachusetts judgment against Ciampa and could have recorded an execution from that case. I don’t have a good answer for that. Perhaps the judgment in that case only ran against Fidelity? The decision doesn’t make it clear.

Berg and Bedenbaugh then brought another action, this time in federal court, on the Florida judgment, intending to initiate supplementary process proceedings after obtaining a judgment. Supplementary process is a Massachusetts procedure for questioning judgment debtors about their assets and ability to pay and then obtaining a payment order from the court. Under the Full Faith and Credit statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, the state court judgment, when properly authenticated, is entitled to full faith and credit in a federal court. (Note that this is a statutory rule, not a constitutional rule, since the Full Faith and Credit Clause only requires the courts of one state to give full faith and credit to the judgments of the courts of another state). Again, there is a question in my mind about why Berg and Bedenbaugh thought it necessary to bring yet another action. Anyway, Ciampa moved to dismiss, which brings us to today’s decision.

Some of Ciampa’s claims obviously lacked merit. Ciampa complained, for example, that Berg and Bedenbaugh were improperly trying to register a state court judgment in federal court, but the court recognized that instead, they were bringing an action on the judgment. She also argued that B&B were improperly seeking to remove the case to federal court, which I have trouble understanding even on its face as they brought a new action. The one argument that required a bit of analysis was their abstention argument. They argued for Younger abstention, which is appropriate where a parallel federal suit will needlessly interfere with a state lawsuit, and Colorado River abstention, which applies in exceptional circumstances to parallel proceedings. The court found neither applied.

I am not going to delve into the details of the two abstention doctrines. Both apply only in exceptional cases, and I think the decision not to apply them here was reasonable. I am left, though, with the question of why the plaintiffs complicated things by bringing so many cases. The best I can do is to speculate that since the first judgment was appealed, and since, in Massachusetts, a money judgment is stayed until appeals are complete, without the need for a supersedeas bond, maybe the judgment creditors brought the federal action in order to keep trying to collect while the first appeal was pending. I haven’t checked the dates to see if that makes sense. But I do think that as a general matter, a judgment creditor should be able to accomplish everything she needs to accomplish in any particular state by domesticating a sister-state judgment once.

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