October 17, 2008
CHRYSLER CREDIT CORPORATION, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
WANDA PARKER AND JOSEPH PARKER, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division-Special Civil Part, Ocean County, DC-922-96.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 2, 2008
Before Judges Payne and Waugh.
Plaintiff, Chrysler Credit Corporation, appeals from an order of the trial court establishing an exemption of $1,000 from the proceeds collectible pursuant to a garnishment of the wages of defendant Wanda Parker and from an order entered upon motion for reconsideration providing that "[t]he next $1,000 taken from defendant's pay shall be refunded to her" and reducing the amount payable on the judgment by $1,000. On appeal, plaintiff offers the following arguments:
I. The $1,000.00 exemption provision of N.J. Stat. §2A:17-19 does not apply to wage executions entered pursuant to N.J. Stat. $2A:17-50.
II. The $1,000.00 exemption provision of N.J. Stat. §2A:17-19 does not operate to reduce the balance of a judgment.
Following our review of the facts of this matter and applicable law, we reverse.
The facts of this case are as follows: During the course of their marriage, defendants Wanda Parker and her husband, Joseph Parker II, purchased a Chrysler van. Later, Joseph*fn1 abandoned his family, and because she could not meet car loan payments, Wanda returned the vehicle to the dealership. A default judgment in plaintiff's favor was entered against the two defendants in the amount of $9,547.29 plus statutory attorney's fees, interest and court costs on July 2, 1996. To obtain satisfaction of the judgment, on August 4, 1997, plaintiff obtained an order for execution against the wages of Wanda.*fn2 Eventually, $2,221.09 was garnished and applied to the balance of the judgment. However, in early 2000, Wanda's employment ceased, and the garnishment ceased along with it.
In September 2005, plaintiff became aware that Wanda was employed by Burlington County, and on November 28, 2005, it obtained a second order for execution against wages, as well as a writ of execution that was served on Wanda's employer on April 6, 2006. Payments pursuant to the wage execution commenced on June 16, 2006.
In July 2007, Wanda filed an objection to the wage garnishment, stating that she lacked sufficient funds to support herself and her two children. The objection was scheduled for a hearing on August 17, 2007. Plaintiff waived its right to appear at that hearing, but Wanda did not. Although no record of the hearing or order resulting from it has been provided, it appears that, at that time, the motion judge entered an order granting Parker a $1,000 exemption from the wage execution pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:17-19. Following notice that the order had been entered,*fn3 plaintiff sought reconsideration as well as guidance as to the order's implementation. The matter was heard on February 8, 2008, at which time the judge entered the order that we have described, requiring that plaintiff refund the next $1,000 garnished from Rhonda and that the amount of the judgment be reduced by $1,000. This appeal followed.
In reaching his decision in this matter, the judge determined that N.J.S.A. 2A:17-19, which exempts $1,000 of the personal property of a judgment debtor from execution, was applicable to statutory wage garnishments pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:17-50 and -53, thereby exempting $1,000 from execution and reducing the judgment by that amount. We find no statutory basis for this determination, which imports debtor protections applicable to one form of execution to an entirely different collection mechanism, wage garnishment, despite the existence of the separate debtor protections afforded in a wage garnishment context by N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56, limiting such executions to a stated percentage of the debtor's wages, and N.J.S.A. 2A:17-55, which permits a downward modification of the garnishment upon a proper showing of hardship. While the court was correct in finding that wages constitute personal property, see State v. Union-Camp Paper Corp., 35 N.J. 390, 395 (1961), a reasoned view of the statutory scheme establishes that levies on personalty provide an alternative to wage execution as a mechanism for collection on a judgment, and that exemptions applicable to the former are thus inapplicable to the latter. The motion judge was thus mistaken in his overly literal view of the statutory scheme. As Learned Hand observed: "There is no more likely way to misapprehend the meaning of language - be it in a constitution, a statute, a will or a contract - than to read the words literally, forgetting the object which the document as a whole is meant to secure." Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co. v. Comm'r, 159 F.2d 167, 169 (2d Cir. 1947), cert. denied sub nom, Wilkinson v. Comm'r, 331 U.S. 836, 67 S.Ct. 1518, 91 L.Ed. 1848 (1947). See also Longo v. Market Transition Facility of N.J., 326 N.J. Super. 316, 323 (App. Div. 1999).
We likewise find no statutory authority for the cross-the-board reduction in judgments implemented by the judge. Indeed, N.J.S.A. 2A:17-53, applicable to garnishments of the wages of county employees such as Wanda, specifically permits such garnishments to continue "until such execution shall be wholly satisfied." See also N.J.S.A. 2A:17-55 (permitting modification of amount of levy, but stating further: "Such execution as so modified shall continue in full force and effect until fully paid and satisfied, or further modified as herein provided."). The motion judge therefore lacked the statutory authority to effect a reduction in Wanda's obligation pursuant to the judgment against her.
We therefore reverse the judge's initial order establishing a $1,000 exemption from wage execution and vacate paragraph 3 of his February 8, 2008 order establishing the means for implementing the initial order. However, we do not foreclose Wanda from seeking a reduction in the percentage of wages garnished pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:17-55.