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Can private counsel or a collection agency "Register" a California state judgment in Federal Court for collection, and use an affidavit of "assignment of judgment" as proof of standing to collect on a California state judgment by filing in a California Federal Court, when:

  1. The "assignment of judgment" was never filed with the California Superior Court of Origin, and there is no known "Assignee of Record".
  2. The assignment does not state how much is being assigned, nor the nature of the debt underlying the judgment, and the nature of the debt is in question.
  3. The generic judgment did not appear to have any Federal Subject matter and there is no existing copy of the California Court Summons and Complaint.
  4. The assignment of judgment does not show the last known address of the alleged Judgment Debtor, the Judgment Debtor had a common name, and no records exist in the Superior Court to show who the Judgment Debtor was, and no existing copy of the Proof of Service exists.
  5. The private counsel did not serve notice of the "Registration of Judgment" in Federal Court to any Judgment Debtor, nor was the Judgment Debtor given notice of the "assignment of judgment" because no one is sure who the Judgment Debtor was.
  6. The generic judgment, dated as "entered in June 1992", was "registered in Federal Court" in October 1999, using an "assignment of judgment" document which was never filed, and the 1992 judgment only exists on Microfilm without any evidence of the "docket" or any other supporting documents.
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  • This question turns out to have a lot more depth hidden in it than one might expect.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 0:57

2 Answers 2

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Short Answer

This seems to be a case of a sloppy debt collector trying to enforce "zombie debt", possibly against someone other than the true judgment debtor who happened to have the same name.

There are some good defenses available to this effort that seem likely to prevail on the merits.

But the odds of recovering attorney fees incurred defending against this debt collection action are 50-50 at best and probably lower than that, which leaves the person facing enforcement in a less than ideal position.

Long Answer

Issue By Issue Analysis

The "assignment of judgment" was never filed with the California Superior Court of Origin, and there is no known "Assignee of Record".

An assignment of a judgment does not have to be filed in the court where it is entered.

The assignment does not state how much is being assigned, nor the nature of the debt underlying the judgment, and the nature of the debt is in question.

As long as the assignment is sufficiently clear to identify the judgment, e.g. with a case number and date, the description is sufficient. It doesn't have to spell out what happened in the underlying case that gave rise to the judgment.

there is no existing copy of the California Court Summons and Complaint.

This isn't necessary. The California case already resolved the issues posed by the Summons and Complaint by entering a judgment.

The generic judgment did not appear to have any Federal Subject matter

This could be a problem for the assignee of the judgment creditor.

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction which is mostly restricted to federal questions and diversity of citizenship (there are many other grounds for federal court jurisdiction, such as a U.S. government party, claims to title to land arising under the laws of different states, specific federal statutes, interpleader actions, and a few others, but none that would jump to mind as a potential basis for federal jurisdiction).

If federal jurisdiction is based upon diversity of citizenship, it wouldn't be necessary to know what the underlying basis for the judgment was (the judgment would also have to be more than $75,000), but if federal jurisdiction is based upon federal question jurisdiction, this would be necessary.

Register" a California state judgment in Federal Court for collection . . . as proof of standing to collect on a California state judgment by filing in a California Federal Court"

I am trying to get my head around why anyone would want to do this.

A California state judgment can be enforced in California without going to federal court to do it. Some critical fact motivating this action seems to be omitted from the OP.

A judgment entered in a federal court in California isn't eligible to be collected by any means not available in a state court in California that I can think of. In particular, U.S. District Courts have precisely the same authority over out of state defendants as state courts of general jurisdiction. So, "registering" a California state court judgment in a federal court does not make it easier in the vast majority of circumstances to collect a judgment from an out of state party than it would be in state court.

The only fact pattern I could imagine where it might matter is where there is diversity of citizenship between a garnishee, such an out of state bank at which the judgment debtor is believed to have a bank account, and the judgment creditor, with the registration being made in a federal court for purposes of avoiding removal of a garnishment collection proceeding from the out of state to federal court.

I suppose that another motivation could be that the debt collection company's lawyer is not admitted to practice in California and believes that it would be easier to be admitted to practice pro hac vice (i.e. for one particular case) in federal court than state court, or would find federal court procedure more familiar than California's state court procedure which is quite atypical of the procedural rules in most other state's courts.

The generic judgment, dated as "entered in June 1992", was "registered in Federal Court" in October 1999, using an "assignment of judgment" document which was never filed, and the 1992 judgment only exists on Microfilm without any evidence of the "docket" or any other supporting documents.

One important issue would be how long a judgment remains valid in California without being renewed. Generally speaking, a judgment must be renewed in California within 10 years of its entry or it expires and can't be enforced. The fact that there are no supporting documents in and of itself, however, isn't an issue.

A federal judgment lien expires after 20 years unless renewed (and this lien was registered more than 21 years earlier and entered more than 28 years earlier), and there is no indication that there was a renewal of the judgment or any judgment lien here.

Also, a judgment lien and a judgment are not the same thing, and it isn't clear that a state judgment registered in a federal court, even if it can be registered in a federal court, becomes a federal judgment as a result when it would be barred under the law of the jurisdiction establishing the judgment in the first place.

The case of Hilao v. Estate of Marcos (9th Cir. 2008) suggests that a federal court may not extend the duration of a judgment that has expired in the court where it was issued, explaining its own holding in its introduction as follows:

This appeal requires us to consider a novel situation involving the registration of a federal judgment. In short, the judgment was rendered in the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii and registered in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, where the prevailing plaintiff sought to enforce it against a non-party, Texas defendant. The defendant in the Texas enforcement action moved to dismiss on the ground that the judgment was not timely registered because, under Texas’s borrowing statute, the Hawai’i “statute of limitations” for enforcing judgments applies and under it, the judgment had expired. This prompted the plaintiff to ask the rendering court to declare that the judgment was live and, in any event, to extend it, which the district court did. Meanwhile, the collection defendant moved to intervene in the extension proceeding, which the district court did not allow, and then to appeal the extension, which the court also did not allow. We conclude that the party against whom enforcement was sought had a significant protectable interest at stake that gave it the right to be heard in the extension proceeding, and to appeal. Having considered the intervenor’s arguments on the merits, we also conclude that the district court erred in purporting to extend the judgment. Accordingly, we reverse the orders denying intervention, and vacate the order granting extension.

The key part of the substantive analysis in that case states:

Section 1963, the federal statute under which Hilao registered the MDL 840 Judgment in the Northern District of Texas for supplemental enforcement proceedings, has no limitations period. However, it does provide that a registered judgment “shall have the same effect as a judgment of the district court of the district where registered and may be enforced in like manner.” Rule 69(a) is to the same effect, providing that the procedure on execution is to be in accordance with the procedure of the state in which the district court is located at the time the remedy is sought. Likewise, the Rules of Decision Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1652, requires application of state statutes of limitations unless a timeliness rule drawn from elsewhere in federal law should be applied. See Agency Holding Corp. v. Malley-Duff & Assocs., 483 U.S. 143, 147 (1987) (so holding). This is the understanding upon which we, and other courts, have proceeded in similar circumstances, looking to the law of the registration forum for its statute of limitations on enforcement of judgments. See, e.g., Duchek v. Jacobi, 646 F.2d 415, 417 (9th Cir. 1981) (acknowledging rule that state law applies to procedures for enforcing a judgment); Marx v. Go Publ’g Co., 721 F.2d 1272, 1273 (9th Cir. 1983) (applying limitations law of the registering state); Matanuska Valley Lines, Inc. v. Molitor, 365 F.2d 358, 359-60 (9th Cir. 1966) (same).6

6 See also, e.g., Stanford v. Utley, 341 F.2d 265, 266 (8th Cir. 1965) (looking to forum law for the limitations period on enforcement of judgments); Home Port Rentals, Inc. v. Int’l Yachting Group, 252 F.3d 399, 406 (5th Cir. 2001) (same).

Marx and Matanuska are particularly instructive. In Marx, the plaintiff obtained a judgment against Go Publishing in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia which he registered, and sought to enforce, in the Central District of California. Go Publishing raised a statute of limitations defense based on the California period for enforcing judgments (ten years). We held, based on analogous California law, that the ten-year period runs from the time the judgment is registered, so long as the judgment is not time-barred at the time of registration. In so holding, we rejected an argument that state limitations rules are inapplicable where a district court judgment is registered under § 1963. 721 F.2d at 1273. In Matanuska, the plaintiff obtained a judgment in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska on July 26, 1956 and registered it pursuant to § 1963 in the Western District of Washington on September 10, 1964. Registration of the judgment was timely under the laws of Alaska, the rendering state, where the life of a judgment is ten years. However, under the laws of Washington, the registering state, a foreign judgment was not enforceable or registrable after the expiration of six years following its entry. We held that enforcement of the registered judgment was barred by the Washington statute of limitations. 365 F.2d at 360. Relying on Duchek, Hilao posits that state law cannot divest a federal district court of jurisdiction to enforce its judgment. However, Duchek is inapposite. The Ducheks had obtained a judgment in the Central District of California, sued to set aside an allegedly fraudulent transfer of assets, and obtained another judgment that they sought to enforce. The defendants argued that because state law applied under Rule 69(a), the court lacked jurisdiction in light of a state venue statute that required a petition to enforce a judgment to be filed in the state superior court. We held that state legislation cannot withdraw federal jurisdiction. But this is neither the purpose, nor the effect, of applying the forum’s statute of limitations for enforcing a judgment. It does not follow from the principle that state law cannot oust a federal court of subject matter jurisdiction, that no state law cutting off or curtailing a right — here, to enforce a judgment — may ever apply.

Stating the same thing somewhat differently, Hilao proposes that a federal judgment is renewed, and thereby extended, every time it is registered under § 1963 in another court. We agree with part of what she says: registering a judgment under § 1963 is the functional equivalent of obtaining a new judgment of the registration court. See, e.g., Matanuska, 365 F.2d at 360; Marx, 721 F.2d at 1273. The effect is to allow that judgment, i.e., the newly registered judgment, to be enforced for the period allowed by the law of that forum, i.e., the state of registration, if the judgment were live, and thus registerable, at the time when it was registered. However, Hilao points to no authority suggesting that registration in one district — even if accomplished when the judgment was live — “extends” the statute of limitations in all districts.

So, there is a solid argument supported by binding precedent in California, even though it is not exactly on point because it involves a federal court to federal court judgment registration and a Texas statute was involved, that California law and not federal law, governs the expiration of a judgment from a California court registered in a federal court, if that is permitted at all.

The assignment of judgment does not show the last known address of the alleged Judgment Debtor, the Judgment Debtor had a common name, and no records exist in the Superior Court to show who the Judgment Debtor was, and no existing copy of the Proof of Service exists.

The lack of proof of service in the underlying action in and of itself isn't a problem, as the existence of the judgment gives rise to a presumption that service was established. The issue of the identity of the judgment debtor named when there are many people who have that name, on the other hand, is potential an issue to litigate.

It would be entirely appropriate to go to dispute an effort to enforce a judgment on the grounds that the Joe Smith from whom collection is sought is different from the Joe Smith against whom judgment was entered.

The private counsel did not serve notice of the "Registration of Judgment" in Federal Court to any Judgment Debtor, nor was the Judgment Debtor given notice of the "assignment of judgment" because no one is sure who the Judgment Debtor was.

The process for registering a judgment from a different state in a new state is governed by the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (1964) which has been enacted in every U.S. state (text and official comments here). The substantive provisions of the short act state:

Section 1. [ Definition.] In this Act "foreign judgment" means any judgment, decree, or order of a court of the United States or of any other court which is entitled to full faith and credit in this state.

Section 2. [Filing and Status of Foreign Judgments.] A copy of any foreign judgment authenticated in accordance with the act of Congress or the statutes of this state may be filed in the office of the Clerk of any [District Court of any city or county] of this state. The Clerk shall treat the foreign judgment in the same manner as a judgment of the [District Court of any city or county] of this state. A judgment so filed has the same effect and is subject to the same procedures, defenses and proceedings for reopening, vacating, or staying as a judgment of a [District Court of any city or county] of this state and may be enforced or satisfied in like manner.

Section 3. [Notice of Filing.] (a) At the time of the filing of the foreign judgment, the judgment creditor or his lawyer shall make and file with the Clerk of Court an affidavit setting forth the name and last known post office address of the judgment debtor, and the judgment creditor.

(b) Promptly upon the filing of the foreign judgment and the affidavit, the Clerk shall mail notice of the filing of the foreign judgment to the judgment debtor at the address given and shall make a note of the mailing in the docket. The notice shall include the name and post office address of the judgment creditor and the judgment creditor's lawyer, if any, in this state. In addition, the judgment creditor may mail a notice of the filing of the judgment to the judgment debtor and may file proof of mailing with the Clerk. Lack of mailing notice of filing by the Clerk shall not affect the enforcement proceedings if proof of mailing by the judgment creditor has been filed. [ (c) No execution or other process for enforcement of a foreign judgment filed hereunder shall issue until [ ] days after the date the judgment is filed.]

Section 4. [Stay.] (a) If the judgment debtor shows the [District Court of any city or county] that an appeal from the foreign judgment is pending or will be taken, or that a stay of execution has been granted, the court shall stay enforcement of the foreign judgment until the appeal is concluded, the time for appeal expires, or the stay of execution expires or is vacated, upon proof that the judgment debtor has furnished the security for the satisfaction of the judgment required by the state in which it was rendered.

(b) If the judgment debtor shows the [District Court of any city or county] any ground upon which enforcement of a judgment of any [District Court of any city or county] of this state would be stayed, the court shall stay enforcement of the foreign judgment for an appropriate period, upon requiring the same security for satisfaction of the judgment which is required in this state.

Section 5. [Fees.] Any person filing a foreign judgment shall pay to the Clerk of Court ____________ dollars. Fees for docketing, transcription or other enforcement proceedings shall be as provided for judgments of the [District Court of any city or county of this state].

Section 6. [Optional Procedure.] The right of a judgment creditor to bring an action to enforce his judgment instead of proceeding under this Act remains unimpaired.

Section 7. [Uniformity of Interpretation.] This Act shall be so interpreted and construed as to effectuate its general purpose to make uniform the law of those states which enact it.

There is a procedure under 28 U.S.C. § 1963 to register a judgment of one federal court in another federal court for purposes of enforcement, which does not require notice to the judgment debtor. It states that:

A judgment in an action for the recovery of money or property entered in any court of appeals, district court, bankruptcy court, or in the Court of International Trade may be registered by filing a certified copy of the judgment in any other district or, with respect to the Court of International Trade, in any judicial district, when the judgment has become final by appeal or expiration of the time for appeal or when ordered by the court that entered the judgment for good cause shown. Such a judgment entered in favor of the United States may be so registered any time after judgment is entered. A judgment so registered shall have the same effect as a judgment of the district court of the district where registered and may be enforced in like manner.

A certified copy of the satisfaction of any judgment in whole or in part may be registered in like manner in any district in which the judgment is a lien.

The procedure prescribed under this section is in addition to other procedures provided by law for the enforcement of judgments.

A federal court has held in a ruling that would be persuasive but not binding in California (which is in the 9th Circuit), but is consistent with the plain language of the statute, in Caballero v. Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (10th Cir. December 27, 2019) that federal courts may register only federal court judgments, not state court judgments, under 28 U.S.C. § 1963. Some background on the statute is provided in a law review article from 1984 arguing that 28 U.S.C. § 1963 is too hard to enforce when a federal court judgment is pending appeal but has not been stayed pending appeal. It also seems consistent with Fidelity National Financial, Inc. v. Friedman (9th Cir 2015), which is pending precedent and stated in the introduction to its ruling that:

The federal registration statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1963, permits plaintiffs to take a judgment entered in one federal district court and register it in another. A judgment so registered has “the same effect as a judgment of the district court of the district where registered and may be enforced in like manner.” Id. This case presents a question of first impression in this Circuit: may a registered judgment itself be registered in yet another district? We answer yes — a registered judgment is “[a] judgment in an action for the recovery of money or property entered in any . . . district court,” id., and itself may be registered.

It doesn't directly address the question of registration of a state court judgment in federal court, but it seems consistent with this position.

I'm not aware of a process to register a state court judgment in a federal court at all, let alone a federal court in the same state, but the ruling in the 10th Circuit case strongly suggests that this is the only statute that could be relied upon for the registration here, and the authority on the broader holding of the 10th Circuit that state court judgments can't be registered in federal courts is the subject of a split of authority, stating:

Federal courts disagree on whether a state-court judgment may be registered in a federal district court under § 1963. The Seventh Circuit has held that § 1963 does not prohibit removal of a state-court judgment to federal court if other requirements for federal jurisdiction are met. GE Betz, Inc. v. Zee Co. , 718 F.3d 615, 625 (7th Cir. 2013). In reaching this conclusion, the court determined that "[r]eading a bar against the enforcement of state-court judgments by federal courts requires reading additional words into § 1963 that are not there." Id. at 624 ; but see id. at 623-24 (listing "a host of district court decisions" holding that § 1963 does not authorize a federal court to register a state-court judgment (collecting cases)).

In contrast, the Second Circuit found support in § 1963 itself for its view that a new court action must be filed to enforce a judgment entered by a non-federal court. Mobil Cerro Negro, Ltd. v. Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela , 863 F.3d 96, 99 (2d Cir. 2017). " ‘By its express terms § 1963 applies only to registration of federal-court judgments in another federal court.’ " Id. at 123 (quoting Caruso v. Perlow , 440 F. Supp. 2d 117, 118 (D. Conn. 2006) ) (brackets omitted); see also, e.g. , Fox Painting Co. v. NLRB , 16 F.3d 115, 117 (6th Cir. 1994) (finding "unambiguous" § 1963 ’s language specifying the courts whose judgments can be registered in federal district courts) ; Euro-Am. Coal Trading, Inc. v. James Taylor Mining, Inc. , 431 F. Supp. 2d 705, 708 (E.D. Ky. 2006) ("[T]he registration procedures of 28 U.S.C. § 1963 contain jurisdictional limitations that prohibit federal courts from registering state court judgments.")

Although Fox Painting was announced before the 1996 amendment to § 1963, which added the courts of appeals and the bankruptcy courts as courts whose judgments can be registered in another jurisdiction, see Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-317, 110 Stat. 3847, the amendment does not detract from Fox Painting ’s determination that § 1963 ’s "language is unambiguous." 16 F.3d at 117.

We join the courts holding that § 1963 applies only to registration of federal-court judgments in federal courts—not to state-court judgments. Consequently, we reverse the district court’s judgment registering the Florida state-court judgment in Utah federal court.

Even under the 7th Circuit position, however, the federal court still needs a basis for jurisdiction. The party in the 10th Circuit case tried to claim that the full faith and credit statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, but this doesn't colorably apply to a case seeking to register a state court judgment in a federal court in the same state, and without a federal question, there is a $75,000 threshold for diversity jurisdiction (my hunch is that the judgment in the OP is smaller than that).

Big Picture Analysis

Presumably, one would ask the questions in the OP because someone is trying to enforce the 1992 California judgment in 2021.

The response to file in the federal court would probably raise several issues in one or more motions.

  1. It could assert with the affidavit of the person from whom collection is sought that he is not one and the same person as the person identified in the affidavit, if that is true, and request a hearing. At this point, the Court should conduct an evidentiary hearing and if the judgment creditor couldn't prove that the judgment wasn't against some other Joe Smith than the one from whom collection was sought, enforcement of the judgment against this Joe Smith would be enjoined in a motion to set aside or stay collection actions under the judgment.

  2. The judgment debtor could dispute that the judgment creditor did indeed assign the judgment and ask for discovery or a hearing to establish that there was an assignment in a motion to set aside or stay collection actions under the judgment.

  3. It could assert various defenses to the judgment in a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b):

  • payment
  • discharge in bankruptcy
  • the expiration of the judgment under California law without a timely renewal
  • it could asset that the federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to register the judgment
  • it could assert that there is no statutory basis stated that would authorize the registration so the federally registered judgment is void
  • it could assert that the judgment is void because any procedural requirements under a statute identified, if there is one, was not met (although 28 U.S.C. § 1963 really doesn't require much of anything procedurally)
  • it could assert with an affidavit that there was no service of process in the underlying California case giving rise to the 1992 judgment, meaning that the California court lacked personal jurisdiction over the defendant, and ask for a hearing on that issue, and the assignee of the judgment debtor would have to prove up the existence of good service by a preponderance of the evidence (a similar defense was raised in the District Court in the 10th Circuit case cited above).

If there is a judgment lien on real property based upon the judgment, this could be affirmatively raised in a quiet title action.

In lieu of defending collection efforts, the judgment debtor or purported judgment debtor could also affirmatively bring a declaratory judgment action against the assignee to have the judgment declared void, or unenforceable against him or her, for any of the reasons set forth above.

Attorney Fees

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc. (2017), however, that the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act does not apply to assignees of debts, so the remedies of that statute would not be available, and that would greatly raise the bar for any award of costs or attorney fees in favor of the disputing alleged judgment debtor.

The judgment debtor could allege a lack of adequate investigation and due diligence before filing pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11, or the litigation lacked any rational legal theory to support it, but this is a pretty high bar and getting an award of fees in this fact pattern could go either way.

0

An excellent answer and clearly a great analysis. However, it appears that if the Assignment of Judgment is not filed in the California Superior Court where the judgment was originally issued, then it can't be filed.

See California CCP § 673, (a) An assignee of a right represented by a judgment may become an assignee of record by filing with the clerk of the court which entered the judgment an acknowledgment of assignment of judgment.

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  • I would suspect that CCP § 673 while a sufficient way to assign a judgment, is not a necessary or exclusive way to do so.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 22:24
  • Also keep in mind that the relevant law is the law at the time of the assignment, and not necessarily the law on the books today, unless it ratifies past assignments that would otherwise have been incalid.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 1:21
  • CCP § 673 is not the exclusive means of becoming the "assignee of record", but the other means are limited to: "...guardian or conservator of the estate, personal representative, or other successor in interest of the judgment creditor or assignee of record." CCP § 680.240 defining the term, "assignee of record" in California.
    – user37699
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 17:54
  • The "effective date of statute" is indeed very important. CCP 673 effective date is as follows: "Added by Stats. 1982, Ch. 497, Sec. 38. Operative July 1, 1983, by Sec. 185 of Ch. 497".
    – user37699
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 18:00

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