On January 10, 2020, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals issued its decision in the case of Renter’s Realty v. Ieshia Smith. At issue in that case was whether the Alabama Constitution’s $1,000 personal property exemption could be applied by judgment debtors to protect wages.
First, some background on the case. The Alabama Constitution has an exemption for personal property that allows judgment debtors (people against whom judgments have been entered) to protect up to $1,000 of personalty from garnishment or execution. The court had previously held, in Merrida v. Credit Acceptance Corporation, 238 So. 3d 1249 (Ala. Civ. App. 2017), that as long as a debtor’s paycheck was less than $1,000 per pay period and they used all of that money for themselves and their dependents’ necessary support, the constitutional exemption protected such wages from garnishment, even if those wages amounted to more than the amount protected under federal guidelines (which protects only 30 hours of minimum wage per week or 75% of income).
Unfortunately, the banking industry and other special interest groups lobbied their friends in Montgomery to pass a law that said the opposite: that the Constitutional exemption was NOT intended to protect wages. So the question came before the Court again: could the legislature pass a law interpreting the Constitution to say something different from what the Court previously said it meant?
Farah Majid, an attorney for Legal Services Alabama, represented the judgment debtor in the case and wrote an excellent appellate brief in the case. I had the honor of writing an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, and Alabama Arise. Our amicus brief argued that the State Legislature simply had no authority to pass laws that impeded rights granted by the Constitution, which is a higher legal authority than the Alabama Code. As we put it:
What the Legislature giveth, the Legislature may taketh away. Not so with rights endowed by the Constitution. City of Birmingham v. Graffeo, 551 So.2d 357, 363.)Brief Amicus Curiae of Alabama Community and Human Rights Groups and National Consumer Rights Organizations, p. 10
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals took the matter under submission, and on January 10th, they issued their ruling:
“We agree with the circuit court’s determination that the legislature’s effort to redefine “personal property” in § 204 was an impermissible “overreach” and that § 6-10-6.1 is, therefore, unconstitutional. Accordingly, the judgment of the circuit court is affirmed.
All the judges concur.”Ala. Civ. App. Appeal No. 2181042, p. 12
In other words, we were right all along! The law that was written by collection industry lobbyists to try and take more of the hard-earned money of Alabama’s working folks was declared unconstitutional. As a result of this ruling, anyone whose paycheck is less than $1,000 per pay period can now protect their wages by filing a claim of exemption with the trial court. If you need help protecting your wages from garnishment, feel free to give us a call the law office of Judson E. Crump, PC at 251-272-9148.
You can read my amicus brief here: Renter’s Realty v. Smith Amicus Brief
You can read the Court’s final opinion here: Renter’s Realty v. Smith Opinion