You Win! So What?!

11 Jul 2019

Contrary to popular belief, obtaining a final judgment in a lawsuit should not be treated as a “game over” scenario. It is indeed a crucial first step toward obtaining what you’re looking for, but in reality, it means little more than that a judge agrees that you are entitled to something from the person you have sued. This could mean the judge has confirmed the defendant owes you money, or that the defendant can’t (or must) take certain actions, etc. Regardless of what relief you have been found entitled to receive, there is generally still more to do despite having taken that significant, crucial “first” step toward your end goal of actually receiving the relief sought in the lawsuit.

For example, in a lawsuit seeking unpaid community association assessments, the association generally seeks money damages (i.e., the unpaid assessments, interest, late fees, attorney’s fees and costs incurred), and foreclosure of the property if the debt is not paid by a specific date (i.e., the foreclosure sale date). However, this remedy is only available in limited circumstances, and a judgment for money damages is less effective where no foreclosure sale can be scheduled. Moreover, a foreclosure sale can be canceled by the judge, or delayed or avoided altogether via bankruptcy. When no foreclosure remedy is available, an asset search regarding the defendant can be a useful tool in determining whether the defendant is "collectable," meaning whether there are assets to collect if/when you obtain your judgment. These assets may include bank accounts, salary, personal property, non-homestead real property, etc. If no such assets seem to exist, the question becomes whether you are willing to spend thousands or more in fees and costs to obtain a nice piece of paper (i.e., a judgment) to place in a frame on your wall. When a defendant lacks such assets, they are generally also more likely to seek bankruptcy protection, meaning more attorneys’ fees and possibly less - or no - collection options for you. Note that sometimes, when a matter becomes personal, we do see clients seeking such money judgments for the exact reason that they do want a “trophy” or a “moral win.”

It is normally worth including a requirement in the money judgment (including one that is only for attorney's fees and costs awarded to the "winner") that the non-prevailing party supply a Fla.R.Civ.P. Form 1.977 within a specific timeframe. This form outlines some of the person or entity’s assets, and facilitates collecting those assets to satisfy the judgment debt in whole or in part. Recording a certified copy of the judgment will also turn your judgment into a "judgment lien" against all real property in the county where each certified copy is recorded. This is important to establish the priority of your lien over all later-recorded liens against the owner's real property. Perhaps more importantly, it also establishes that your lien must be paid before "clear title" can be conveyed, if the debtor seeks to sell the real property. Similarly, if you locate non-homestead real property owned by the defendant, you can levy on (require the sale of) the property to satisfy the debt. Remember, though, that creditors are paid in order of priority, meaning that if there are 2 mortgages against the property that were recorded before your judgment lien, they will be paid first.