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What happened to the "equity" component of Missouri's equitable garnishment statute?

December 21, 2012 | Angela Higgins

Equity is a jurisprudential concept brought to America by the English colonists, and traces its roots and defining principles back centuries to the time when the King or Queen of England ruled over the courts at law, and the church administered justice in equity. The fundamental premise of equity is that an equitable remedy will not be available if the plaintiff has a cause of action at law. See Glueck Realty Company v. City of St. Louis, 318S.W.2d 206, 211 (Mo. 1958). Equitable relief is extraordinary and should not be afforded when a legal remedy exists. Umphres v. J.R. Mayer Enterprises, Inc., 889 S.W.2d 86 (Mo. App. E.D. 1994). 

As discussed in our prior post on Missouri’s equitable garnishment statute there has been a curious “lost years” period in which the Missouri courts have been seemingly unaware of early and still-good law regarding the purposes and limitations of the equitable garnishment remedy. Early Missouri courts found that “[a] remedy in equity is never available except when there is no adequate legal remedy, and it was the purpose of [§379.200] to furnish such remedy only when there is no adequate legal remedy….If execution can be satisfied by garnishment or otherwise, the equitable procedure is not available.” Lajoie v. Central West Casualty. Co., 71 S.W.2d 803, 812 (Mo. App. K.C. 1934) (emphasis added). 

The purpose of the equitable garnishment statute is “only to furnish some adequate remedy where the remedy at law was inadequate or did not exist, so that, by the two, the entire field would be covered.” Lajoie, 71 S.W.2d at 813. The equitable garnishment remedy was never intended to be a remedy of first resort. Id. Unlike garnishment at law, which can be obtained immediately following entry of judgment, there is a 30-day waiting period for equitable garnishment, during which time the judgment creditor is supposed to be pursuing garnishment at law. Id. at 812-13. Garnishment at law pre-existed the equitable garnishment remedy.

“[T]here can be no doubt but that the remedy of ‘equitable garnishment’ is a long recognized part of the equity jurisprudence of this state, and that it serves to fill that void created when the normal processes of law are found to be inadequate.” Linder v. Hawkeye-Security Ins. Co., 472 S.W.2d 412, 414 (Mo. banc 1971) (emphasis added). Early courts found that equitable garnishment “was not designed to become operative so long as the fund might be reached by execution and garnishment” or “otherwise satisfied at law.” Lajoie, 71 S.W.2d at 812.

The remedy afforded by Section 379.200 is in the nature of a “creditors’ bill” at equity. Schott v. Continental Auto Ins. Underwriters, 31 S.W.2d 7, 12 (Mo. 1930Dinwiddie, 224 S.W.2d at 987; Lajoie, 71 S.W.2d at 812. A creditors’ bill permits a party to enforce the payment of debts out of equitable assets which cannot be reached by execution at law. Publicity Bldg. Realty Corp. v. Thomann, 183 S.W.2d 69, 72 (Mo. 1944). The legislature intended that equitable garnishment be available under the same circumstances as the creditor’s bill – only when funds could not be reached through garnishment. Lajoie, 71 S.W.2d at 812. Equitable garnishment “becomes operative only when the insurance policy proceeds cannot be reached by execution and garnishment or otherwise satisfied at law.” Id. If garnishment will reach the insurance policy proceeds, equitable garnishment is not available. Id.

Garnishment at Law is an Adequate Remedy

Judgment creditors seeking to garnish an insurance policy have a legal remedy available to them – garnishment at law under Chapter 525. Johnston v. Sweany, 68 S.W.3d 398, 404 (Mo. banc 2002). “[W]hen a plaintiff has a full, complete, and adequate remedy at law, he cannot invoke the jurisdiction of a court of equity to obtain the same relief he could get at law.” Strong v. Crancer, 76 S.W.2d 383, 385 (Mo. 1934). 

Even where a plaintiff brings a statutory equitable action, the court’s equity jurisdiction “hinges upon whether the petition, seeking equitable relief, affirmatively shows by the statement of facts, that plaintiff’s law remedy was inadequate.” Collins v. Shive,  261 S.W.2d 58, 60 (Mo. banc 1953). Allegations and proof of inadequacy of plaintiff’s legal remedy are jurisdictional.

An equitable garnishment action only permits a judgment creditor to obtain the insurance money as provided by the terms of the policy language. Linder v. Hawkeye-Security Ins. Co., 472 S.W.2d 412, 415 (Mo. 1971); Mo. Rev. Stat. § 379.200. No other equitable relief may be afforded in a § 379.200 action – it is solely limited to awarding the insurance policy proceeds. A court may not, in an equitable garnishment action, award “extra-contractual” sums not provided for by the insurance policy. Linder, 472 S.W.2d at 415. 

Since garnishment at law is inadequate only if it does not permit the judgment creditor to enforce the policy and collect the policy proceeds, and garnishment at law provides for precisely the same remedy, it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which garnishment at law would be inadequate. See State ex rel. Anderson v. Dinwiddie, 224 S.W.2d 985, 987 (Mo. banc 1949); Lajoie, 71 S.W.2d at 812. Not one of the reported cases of equitable garnishment since the 1930s has involved any of the “mischief” designed to be addressed by Mo. Rev. Stat. § 379.200 or any factual circumstances in which garnishment at law would not have been an adequate remedy at law. Missouri courts have, nevertheless, routinely permitted judgment creditors to bring equitable garnishment claims without even the barest allegation that the garnishor lacks an adequate remedy at law, much less factual allegations specifying how and why garnishment at law could possibly be inadequate under modern insurance laws.

Missouri state and federal courts continue to allow plaintiffs to bring equitable garnishment claims against insurers to this very day, in complete disregard of the bedrock principles of equity jurisdiction. In our next post on this topic, we will explore some of the burdens imposed upon insurers and insureds by the current state of Missouri law on equitable garnishment.


Related Services: Insurance
Attorneys: Angela Higgins

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The BSCR Insurance Blog examines topics and developments of interest to insurance carriers, with a particular focus on Missouri and Kansas law. Learn more about the editor, Angela M. Higgins, and our Insurance practice.

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