State Employee Retirement Benefits Payments are Not Exempt from Garnishment by Victims of Violent Crime
Klingman v. Winters, KNLCV020560881, 2010 WL 5493498 (Conn. Super. Ct. Dec. 8, 2010)
In a case before the Superior Court of Connecticut, a victim of a violent crime sought to have a wage execution enforced against the retirement payments of her convicted assailant in order to collect the awarded judgment. The court found that the claim for a wage execution was valid and enforceable.
The plaintiff was awarded a $240,000 judgment for injuries she sustained from a physical attack by the defendant. The judgment was entered on a four-count complaint claiming negligence, reckless and wanton assault, intentional assault and violation of the Violence Against Women Act of 1995, 42 U.S.C. § 13981, based upon the applicable Connecticut General Statutes. The defendant declared bankruptcy; however, the bankruptcy court found that the plaintiff’s judgment was not subject to bankruptcy exemptions. In its memorandum of decision, the bankruptcy court characterized the attack as “vicious and brutal” and the injuries inflicted as “willful and malicious.”
A wage execution was entered against the defendant and the defendant’s employer, the State of Connecticut, and was paid to the plaintiff until the defendant retired. The plaintiff applied for a new wage execution, which was served on the State and returned by reason of the defendant’s retirement. The State contended that it discontinued payments on the wage execution because the defendant was placed on hazardous duty disability retirement and the execution was impermissible according to Connecticut law prohibiting assignments of state employees’ retirement benefits, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 5-171.
Under Connecticut law, retirement benefits of state employees are intended to support the member or beneficiary who is entitled to those payments; therefore, any assignment of such benefits is “null and void.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 5-171. These benefits are “exempt from the claims of creditors.” However, if these general provisions are contrary to the law governing a particular circumstance, the law dictates “any payment shall be exempt to the maximum extent permitted by law.” Id. Connecticut law governing the general availability of retirement income to creditors, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-321a, exempts “any pension plan, annuity or insurance contract or similar arrangement … established by federal or state statute for federal, state or municipal employees for the primary purpose of providing benefits upon retirement by reason of age, health or length of service” from the claims of all creditors of the plan beneficiary. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-321a(a)(5). However, this law also provides a specific exception for victims of violent crime: “Nothing in this section … shall impair the rights of a victim of crime … to recover damages awarded by a court of competent jurisdiction from any federal, state or municipal pension, annuity or insurance contract or similar arrangement … when such damages are the result of a crime committed by [the] participant or beneficiary.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-321a(b).
The plaintiff argued that the defendant’s retirement payments should be garnished pursuant to the Connecticut law governing the availability of retirement income to creditors, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-321a. She asserted that this law governed her particular circumstance as a victim of violent crime, and established an exception to the exemption of state employee retirement benefits stated in Section 5-171.
The plaintiff’s argument raises an issue of first impression in the Connecticut. Connecticut appellate courts have not addressed the specific issue of a victim’s right to enforce a withholding order pursuant to law governing the availability of retirement income to creditors, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-321a. Discussion of the general applicability of this law has been limited to trial court decisions regarding alimony and child support obligations. These cases have consistently found that pension benefits covered by Section 52-321a are not exempt from income withholding orders. See, e.g., Sinicropi v. Sinicropi, 23 Conn. L. Rptr. 49 (Conn. Super. Ct. 1998); Foley v. Foley, 20 Conn. L. Rptr. 644 (Conn. Super. Ct. 1997).
The court found that the plaintiff was a victim of a crime; therefore, her claim for a wage execution upon the retirement benefits of the defendant fell within the statutory exception of Section 52-321a(b) and constituted a particular circumstance that fell within the statutory exception of Section 5-171. The court ordered that a wage execution may issue against the retirement benefits payments to the defendant by the State of Connecticut.
Should you have any questions relating to personal asset protection issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Susan Maya, at SMaya@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at RSweeting@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.