Florida Bar Article
By Thomas W. Franchino
What is the applicable time limit for enforcing a foreign judgment pursuant to the Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, F.S. §§55.501-55.509. The act does not contain an explicit limitation period, and from a superficial reading of its provisions, one can reach contradictory conclusions.
The Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act first provides that it shall not be construed to alter, modify, or extend the limitation period applicable for the enforcement of foreign judgments. However, the act does not specify, or reference the source of, the applicable limitation period. Several commentators have concluded that this provision of the act implicitly references and incorporates F.S. §95.11(2)(a) and its five-year limitation of an “action on” a foreign judgment.
In apparent contradiction, Florida’s act goes on to pro-vide that a foreign judgment, recorded pursuant to the act’s provisions, has the same effect as, is subject to the same defenses as, and may be enforced, released or satisfied as, a judgment of a circuit or county court of the State of Florida.’ From this provision, one could conclude that a foreign judgment is enforceable for the same 20-year period, pursuant to F.S. §55.081, as is aFloridajudgment.
No case specifically addresses or answers the question of the applicable time limit for enforcing a foreign judgment pursuant to the act.’ To resolve this apparent contradiction, and to determine the applicable limitation period, it is necessary to analyze the Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, in the context of Florida’s statutory scheme regarding judgments, and the relevant case law. The first step in this analysis is to distinguish proceedings to enforce a judgment, from actions on a judgment.
Proceedings to Enforce a Judgment
A money judgment is merely a piece of paper representing a monetary obligation. A judgment creditor does not realize a monetary gain until and unless the judgment is enforced and the debt collected.
Proceedings to enforce or collect a Florida court judgment are subject to the time limitation of F.S. §55.081. This statute limits a judgment’s life to 20 years by providing that no judgment shall be a lien upon real or personal property within the state after the expiration of 20 years from the date of the entry of the judgment.’ The judgment actually becomes a lien on real property for consecutive periods of seven years to a maximum of 20 years, by the creditor complying with the recording requirements of F.S. §55.10.6
Executions on judgments are issued upon the oral re-quest of the judgment creditor, during the life of the judgment.’ A judgment creditor can impose a judgment lien upon personal property located in a county by delivering an execution to the sheriff of that county.’ That execution is valid and effective, and is retained by the sheriff during the 20-year life of the judgment.
Florida law grants a judgment creditor seeking to en-force a judgment lien several tools. Discovery in aid of execution is authorized from any person, not merely the judgment debtor. Proceedings supplementary to execution are available when the plaintiff in execution files an affidavit informing the court that a sheriff holds an unsatisfied execution that is valid and outstanding.
As a means of foreclosing a judgment lien, the judgment creditor is entitled to levy, and execution sale by the sheriff, of property of the judgment debtor. In addition, special remedies such as garnishment and the appointment of a receiver are also available to a creditor seeking to enforce his Florida judgment.
Prior to the effective date of the Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, October 1, 1984, these direct proceedings were not available to enforce a foreign judgment. Florida courts construed F.S. §55.10 to refer only to judgments rendered by Florida courts. Consequently, the filing or recording of a foreign judgment did not create a lien upon real property in a county in which the judgment was recorded. A foreign judgment creditor could neither execute upon property nor maintain a creditor’s bill in Florida’s.
Prior to enactment of Florida’s act, a foreign judgment was not directly enforceable in Florida. In order to enforce a foreign judgment, the judgment creditor was required to file and litigate in a Florida court a new and independent action. The judgment creditor, if successful in this litigation, would obtain a Florida judgment which could then be en-forced in Florida.
Action on a Judgment
A judgment is regarded as a cause of action, a chose in action, on which a new and independent action may be based. As an alternative to proceedings to enforce a judgment, a new and independent action can be commenced on either a Florida or a foreign judgment. The applicable limitation for an independent action on a Florida judgment is 20 years pursuant to F.S. §95.11(1).21 This limitation is coextensive with the 20-year limitation on proceedings to enforce a judgment as established by F.S. §55.081.
The language of the act appears to dictate that a foreign judgment recorded pursuant to the act is subject to the same time limitation as aFlorida court judgment.
By initiating a new and independent action upon a Florida judgment within the time limit of F.S. §95.11(1) and recovering a new judgment in the action, a creditor can obtain an additional 20 years, pursuant to §55.081, to enforce this new judgment.
The applicable limitation period for a new and independent action upon a foreign judgment is five years pursuant to §95.11(2)(a).22 By initiating a new and independent action on a foreign judgment within the time limit of §95.11(2)(a), the creditor, if successful in the litigation, would recover a Florida judgment. The creditor would have 20 years in which to record the Florida judgment, effect judgment liens, and obtain an execution upon the judgment.
A new and independent Florida action upon a foreign judgment, not filed within the five-year limit of §95.11(2), would be barred.
Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act
The purpose of the Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act is to provide a speedy and economical method of enforcing a foreign judgment. By proceeding under the act’s provisions, a judgment creditor may enforce “a foreign judgment without the further cost and harassment often incurred when an entirely new and separate action on the foreign judgment is required for enforcement.”
Under the act a judgment creditor merely records the foreign judgment and an accompanying affidavit in the local land records without filing an action to enforce it. The foreign judgment is filed, recorded, and indexed by the clerk of courts in the same manner as a judgment of a Florida circuit or county court. Once the foreign judgment is so re-corded it has the same effect and is subject to the same rules of civil procedure, legal and equitable defenses, and proceedings for reopening, vacating, or staying judgments, and it may be enforced, released, or satisfied as a judgment of a circuit or county court of this state.
A foreign judgment recorded in accordance with the act becomes a judgment indistinguishable from a Florida judgment. The language of the act appears to dictate that a foreign judgment recorded pursuant to the act is subject to the same time limitation as is a Florida court judgment. That time limitation is the 20-year limit provided by F.S. §55.081.
Reason also dictates that a foreign judgment recorded pursuant to the act is subject to a 20-year limitation period. Florida’s statutory schemes for the imposition of judgment liens, and the execution of judgment liens, are based on a judgment life of 20 years. As a practical matter, the application of a time limit shorter than 20 years to foreign judgment enforcement would make Florida’s statutory scheme unworkable.
The application of the 20-year limitation period of §55.081 to foreign judgments recorded pursuant to the act is also consistent with the limited scope the Florida Supreme Court has given to §95.11(2) and its five-year limitation period. Section 95.11(2) has been held by the Florida Supreme Court to be inapplicable to proceedings which merely effectuate the lien of a judgment or which relate directly to execution of a judgment.
The Florida Supreme Court was asked in B.A. Lott v. Padgett, 14 So. 2d 667 (Fla. 1943), to decide whether F.S. §95.11(2) (1941), the predecessor to the current statute, operated to bar enforcement of a federal court judgment.” The 1941 statute pro-
vided that an action on a judgment or decree of any court of the United States or of any state or territory within the United States could only be commenced within seven years.
The appellee/judgment creditor in B.A. Lott successfully revived and enforced its federal judgment eight and one-half years after it was rendered.35 The appellant/judgment debtor in B.A. Lott argued that the judgment creditor’s motion to revive, and the resulting enforcement of its judgment, were barred by the statute of limitations, F.S. §95.11(2).36
The Florida Supreme Court rejects appellant/judgment debtor’s argument and holds that the motion to renew the judgment is not a “new and independent action” on the judgment, but merely one to effectuate the judgment lien and, as a result, the statute of limitations, F.S. §95.11, does not apply. The distinction between an “action on a judgment” referenced in §95.11 and proceedings to enforce a judgment is further explained by the Florida Supreme Court in its decision in Young v. McKenzie, 46 So. 2d 184 (Fla. 1950). The Florida Supreme Court notes in Young that proceedings supplementary relate directly to the execution of a judgment and are designed to aid in that execution. As proceedings supplementary are not actions on a judgment as referenced in §95.11, that statute’s limitation is inapplicable to those proceedings.
When analyzed in accordance with these Florida Supreme Court decisions, the recording of a foreign judgment and proceedings to enforce that judgment pursuant to the act do not constitute “an action on” the judgment. As a result, the five-year limitation of §95.11(2)(a) is inapplicable.
The recording of a foreign judgment pursuant to the act must be seen as directly effectuating a judgment lien. Subsequent enforcement proceedings relate directly to the execution of that lien. These direct proceedings to effectuate and to en-force foreign judgment liens were intended as an alternative to the initiation of a new and separate action on the foreign judgment.
As a foreign judgment recorded pursuant to the act establishes a lien which is enforceable as, and subject to the same defenses as, a Florida court judgment, the 20-year limitation of §55.081 must apply.
A lengthy scholarly analysis of the various approaches other jurisdictions have utilized in answering this statute of limitation issue is provided by the court Le Credit Lyonnais, S.A. u. Nadd, 741 So. 2d 1165, 1168?1172 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999). In LeCredit Lyonnais, the appellate court was presented with the issue of whether a five-year limitation or a 20-year limitation was applicable to the recordation and enforcement of a foreign country’s judgment under a parallel uniform act, the Uniform Foreign
Money Judgments Recognition Act. The appellate court holds in LeCredit Lyonnais that the five-year limitation directed at actions brought on judgments of foreign countries does not apply to the registration, filing, or recording of a foreign judgment pursuant to the UFMJRA, and that the applicable statute of limitations are the ones pertinent to Florida’s domestic judgments.
The court’s lengthy analysis in Le Credit Lyonnais is consistent with and provides scholarly support for application of a 20-year limitation on the recordation and enforcement of a sister state’s judgment under the Florida Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act.
Full Faith and Credit
The application of Florida’s 20-year statute of limitation is not only consistent with Florida’s case law and statutory scheme pertaining to judgment enforcement, it is also mandated by the U.S. Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause. Florida’s enforcement of a foreign judgment is not a matter of mere grace, but springs from the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Art. IV, §1 of the U.S. Constitution and its implementing statute, 28 U.S.C. §1738.”
In fact, the Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgment Act must be seen and interpreted as Florida’s statutory implementation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause. A Florida court is required to use the analysis of full faith and credit under the U.S. Constitution in any action to enforce a foreign judgment under Florida’s act. Moreover, preexisting case law on full faith and credit governs this analysis.
The animating purpose of the full faith and credit command, as explained by the U.S. Supreme Court:was to alter the status of the several states as independent foreign sovereigns, each free to ignore obligations created under the laws or by the judicial proceedings of the others, and to make them integral parts of a single nation through out which a remedy upon a just obligation might be demanded as of right irrespective of the state of its origin.
While the full faith and credit obligation regarding judgments is ex acting, it does not require a state to adopt the practice of an other state regarding the time, manner, and mechanism for enforcing judgments. Enforcement measures do not travel with the sister state judgment as preclusive effects do, for such measures remain subject to the even-handed control of the forum states.
Even though a state is free to refuse to enforce a foreign judgment if the enforcement action is commenced following the expiration of the state’s statutory limitation period, the application of the limitation period must be “even-handed” and not discriminatory to foreign judg-ments.
In Watkins v. Conway, 385 U.S. 188 (1966), a Florida judgment creditor appealed from the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the ground that his Georgia suit on the Florida judgment was not brought within five years. The trial court and Georgia Supreme Court rejected the judgment creditor’s argument that the statute of limitation, when read against the longer limitation period on domestic judgments, was inconsistent with the full faith and credit and equal protection clauses of the federal Constitution. The judgment creditor, on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, argued that the statute of limitation served no purpose other than to handicap out-of-state judgment creditors.
In a per curiam opinion expressing the view of eight members, the U.S. Supreme Court explained that:
If appellant’s analysis of the purpose and effect of the statute were correct, we might well agree that it violates the Federal Constitution. For the decisions of this Court which appellee relies upon do not justify the discriminatory application of a statute of limitations to foreign actions.
However, the Supreme Court determined that Georgia state courts interpret their state’s statute to bar suits on foreign judgments only if the judgment cannot be revived in the state where it was originally obtained. Consequently, the Supreme Court held that the Georgia statute, by focusing on the law of Florida, did not violate, but rather insured, full faith and credits.
It is a fundamental rule of statutory construction that a statute be construed to be constitutionals. The application of F.S. §55.081 and its 20-year limitation period to a foreign judgment recorded pursuant to the Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act is an even-handed application of a limitation period as is required by the full faith and credit clause.
When analyzed under Florida’s statutory scheme regarding judgments and the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, the following conclusions appear necessary:
- The act does not impair the right of a judgment creditor to bring an action on a foreign judgment, but offers a speedy and economical alternative which did not exist before the act.
- The act does not alter, modify, or extend the five-year limitation of §95.11(2)(a) applicable to actions on a foreign judgment.
- Direct proceedings to impose and enforce a foreign judgment lien did not exist prior to the act and no Florida statute of limitation was necessary.
- The act gives a foreign judgment recorded pursuant to its provisions the status of a Florida court judgment, enforceable in the same manner as and subject to the same defenses as a Florida court judgment. A Florida court judgment is enforce-able during a life span of 20 years from its rendition.
- Florida ‘s statutory scheme regarding the operation and enforcement of judgments is based upon a judgment having a 20-year life span. The application of a time limit shorter than 20 years on judgments recorded pursuant to the act would be unworkable.
- More importantly, the application of a time limit shorter than 20 years on judgments recorded pursuant to the act is discriminatory and would violate the commands of the full faith and credit clause.