The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently clarified how judgments from other states can be enforced against assets located in Massachusetts pursuant to the Massachusetts Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (the “Act”). Enacted in 2019 and codified at M.G.L. c. 218, § 4A, the Act brings Massachusetts in line with an overwhelming majority of states that have enacted the uniform law to streamline the process for enforcing civil judgments obtained in other states.
Obtaining a judgment against a defendant in a civil lawsuit is often easier than enforcing that judgment, especially when a judgment debtor’s assets are located in another state entirely. The Act was designed to make this process easier for judgment creditors by eliminating the need to relitigate in Massachusetts courts in order to enforce civil judgments obtained in other states when the judgment debtor holds assets in Massachusetts. The Act is intended to fulfill the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that “[f]ull faith and credit shall be given in each state to the…judicial proceedings of every other state.”
In Berg v. Ciampa, 100 Mass. App. Ct. 569 (Dec. 29, 2021), however, questions arose about what enforcement mechanisms the Act allows judgment creditors to use in Massachusetts once a foreign judgment has been domesticated through the Act’s procedures. The Appeals Court clarified that the Act does not limit how a judgment creditor can enforce a foreign judgment but rather provides the creditor a simple tool for turning a foreign judgment into a Massachusetts judgment which can then be enforced like any other judgment obtained in the courts of the Commonwealth.
The Act – A Short Primer
Before turning to the Appeals Court’s decision in Berg, it is important to understand what the Act says. The Act provides that a creditor holding a foreign judgment may file an authenticated copy of the judgment in the District Court where the debtor is located and, so long as certain procedures are followed, may apply for an execution on the judgment thirty days later. Specifically, the creditor must file an affidavit stating the name and last known mailing address of the debtor and the creditor, so that the District Court clerk can mail notice of the filing to the debtor. The creditor may also mail notice of the filing to the debtor and file proof of the mailing to satisfy the notice requirement.
Although the Act does not expressly provide that a foreign judgment must be final in order to be filed, the Act does provide judgment debtors a procedural mechanism to delay issuance of an execution if the period for appealing the foreign judgment has not expired. Specifically, if a judgment debtor “shows” the District Court that an appeal has been taken or will be taken in the courts where the judgment issued and that the debtor has satisfied any requirements for providing security for an appeal, the District Court must stay enforcement of the foreign judgment in Massachusetts until the appeals process has concluded.
Finally, and critically for the purposes of the Berg case, the Act states that “[n]otwithstanding this section, a judgment creditor shall retain the right to bring an action to enforce a judgment instead of proceeding under this section.”
The Berg Decision
In Berg, the Appeals Court addressed the question of whether the Act “precludes a judgment creditor from domesticating a foreign judgment in the Boston Municipal Court (BMC)”—Boston’s equivalent of the District Court—“and seeking enforcement of the foreign judgment in the Superior Court.” Berg v. Ciampa, 100 Mass. App. Ct. at 569. The question arose when the plaintiffs secured a judgment against a Massachusetts resident in a Florida court. The plaintiffs then filed an action in Massachusetts Superior Court to reach and apply the defendant’s assets held by certain financial institutions. Additionally, once the Act took effect, the plaintiffs also filed the Florida judgment in the BMC to domesticate the judgment under the Act. The Appeals Court concluded that the Act did not prevent the plaintiffs from proceeding in Superior Court to enforce their foreign judgment after it was domesticated through the Act.
The defendant in Berg argued that the “instead of” language in the provision of the Act regarding a judgment creditor’s retention of “the right to bring an action to enforce a judgment” rendered the Act “more than procedural.” Berg, 100 Mass. App. Ct. at 571. Specifically, the defendant contended that the Act “requires judgment creditors to choose between commencing an action” under the Act “and filing a complaint in the Superior Court” to enforce a foreign judgment under Massachusetts’s pre-Act process. Id. The Appeals Court rejected this argument (which incorrectly suggested that the Act requires a judgment creditor to “commenc[e] an action” in District Court) because “there [was] no suggestion that the plaintiffs tried to enforce the judgment” in the BMC proceedings and “the BMC filing alone does nothing to enforce the command for payment.” Id. Rather, the proceeding under the Act simply makes the foreign judgment enforceable in Massachusetts, through whatever means the judgment creditor chooses to employ from those enforcement methods Massachusetts law allows.
The Berg decision is important for several reasons. First, although a common mechanism for enforcing judgments—supplementary process—is primarily a District Court procedure brought against a judgment debtor, other tools to assist creditors to collect on judgments are only available in Superior Court. For example, reach-and-apply actions, which allow a judgment creditor to satisfy the judgment debt through property that cannot be taken on execution (such as accounts receivable), can be brought in Superior Court but not District Court. Second, the Appeals Court clarified that even if a judgment creditor chooses to enforce a judgment domesticated under the Act through a District Court proceeding (such as supplementary process), it has to do so in a separate proceeding, particularly if the judgment creditor seeks “relief against nonparties to the foreign judgment,” such as trustees holding the debtor’s funds, because the Act itself does not provide that relief. See Berg, 100 Mass. App. Ct. at 573. Third, the Appeals Court expressed several conditions for judgment creditors’ use of the Act. The Act “should not be used to harass debtors,” for example. Nor can judgment creditors seek executions both from a District Court through the Act and from a Superior Court through a traditional domesticate-and-enforce action. But, critically, as the Appeals Court recognized, the Legislature in enacting the Act did not “intend to limit the remedies available to judgment creditors.” Id. at 572.
The Act brings Massachusetts in line with 47 other states in the country in providing a streamlined mechanism for judgment creditors to domesticate foreign judgments against Massachusetts residents or assets located here. In so doing, the Act gives creditors a tool to expeditiously turn their foreign judgments into executions that can be used to recover against assets their judgment debtors have in the Commonwealth. And, under the Appeals Court’s decision in Berg, the Act does not limit the actual enforcement mechanisms that a creditor has at its disposal once it has obtained a Massachusetts execution on a foreign judgment through the Act. The decision furthers the ultimate purpose of the Act—to make sure that the holder of a foreign judgment gets the “full faith and credit” of the Massachusetts courts in seeking to enforce the judgment against Massachusetts residents.
Roger L. Smerage is a member of Ruberto, Israel & Weiner’s Litigation Practice Group. He can be reached at (617)-570-3512 or email@example.com. If you have any questions about domesticating and enforcing a foreign judgment in Massachusetts, please reach out to RIW’s Litigation Practice Group.
 Vermont and California are the only other states that have not enacted a form of the uniform law, according to the Uniform Law Commission.
 U.S. Const. Art. IV, § 1.
This summary is presented for informational and educational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice, nor create an attorney-client relationship. For a full understanding of the issues, please contact counsel of your choice.