Garnishing a prison account


By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer



After Agatha Martin Williams was convicted in Stark County on various counts of theft, grand theft, and forgery, she was sentenced to a 102-month sentence at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

It so happens that Williams is the beneficiary of a lifetime pension benefit from the Timken Company, based on a qualified domestic-relations order, and she began receiving $412.18 per month on March 1, 2011. The benefit is deposited directly into a checking account that she holds jointly with her adult daughter, who occasionally transfers a portion of the funds from the checking account into Williams’s prison account.

In December 2012, Williams was served with a court order to pay off an obligation in her criminal conviction. She was ordered to pay restitution of $166,354.94 and a fine of $27,500. The prison business office placed her account on legal-hold status and allowed her only $25 per month to spend at the prison commissary, and starting in January 2013, everything greater than that amount was garnished and sent to the Stark County Clerk of Courts.

Williams went through the necessary procedures to object to the attachment of the funds in her prison account, claiming that they were pension benefits exempt from garnishment under Ohio law. Nevertheless, a hold was placed on her prison account.

Williams completed the grievance process, but this – and other subsequent grievances – were denied.

So she filed a complaint with the court of appeals seeking three different things: injunctive relief, a writ of prohibition, and a writ of mandamus ordering the warden to exempt the funds in her account from attachment or garnishment.

The warden filed an answer to the complaint, and the court of appeals ultimately dismissed the case in its entirety. After that, Williams filed an appeal with us – the Ohio Supreme Court.

In our review of the case, we noted that dismissal of a case on the merits without notice – which is what the court of appeals did – is warranted only “when a complaint is frivolous or the claimant obviously cannot prevail on the facts alleged in the complaint.”

We determined that the court of appeals was correct in dismissing Williams’s claim for injunctive relief and her claim for a writ of prohibition because – for various reasons – she could not prevail in either of those claims.

But what about her third request – for a writ of mandamus? A writ of mandamus is an order from a higher court to a lower court or an administrative officer, such as a warden in this instance. We concluded that the court of appeals erred in dismissing Williams’s mandamus claims without giving her the opportunity to brief them on her claims.

To be entitled to the writ of mandamus, Williams had to establish a clear legal right to the requested relief, a clear legal duty on the part of the warden to provide it, and the lack of an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law. She also had to prove that she was entitled to the writ by clear and convincing evidence.

Her first request for relief involved the substantive question of whether the money transferred from her checking account into her inmate account may be garnished because it originally comes from a pension. Ohio law allows the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to take and transmit funds in a prisoner’s account to a court for payment of a stated obligation.

The Department may also make rules specifying that a portion of the inmate’s money may be retained and not used to satisfy the obligation. However, the rules cannot permit the disbursement of funds if those funds are exempt – and according to the law, certain pension benefits are exempt from garnishment or attachment.

In a case from 1986, we explored the question of whether funds remain exempt when deposited in a checking account. We concluded that exempt funds do not lose their exempt status when deposited in a personal checking account and we held that the rationale for that conclusion was to “protect funds intended primarily for maintenance and support of the debtor’s family.”

That rationale would be frustrated “if exempt funds were automatically deprived of their” immunity when deposited in a checking account in order to pay by check those regular subsistence expenses the debtor incurs. In that 1986, we held that personal earnings retain their exempt status so long as the source of the exempt funds is known or reasonably traceable.

Unlike that 1986 case, the funds in Williams’s case are not simply deposited in a checking account. The pension funds are deposited into a joint account with her daughter, who uses most of the money to support Williams’s family, but periodically places money from this account into William’s inmate account for her use at the prison. And Williams claimed that the source of the exempt funds is known or reasonably traceable.

Because Williams has a possible argument that the funds in her inmate account are exempt from garnishment, the court of appeals erred in dismissing her mandamus claim. Her arguments are not frivolous, nor is it true that she “obviously cannot prevail on the facts alleged in the complaint.”

The court of appeals dismissed her claim on the basis that the laws and procedures authorizing collections are constitutional. Williams is not asserting that the laws are unconstitutional but that the procedures were improperly followed. We determined that she must be given the opportunity to brief the mandamus issue with regard to these claims before they may be dismissed.

Because the court of appeals erroneously dismissed Williams’s mandamus claims on the merits without notice, we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals – by a six-to-one vote – and sent the case back to the court of appeals to allow briefing and presentation of evidence before deciding William’s mandamus claims.

This doesn’t mean that Williams has prevailed; rather, it means that she will now have an opportunity to brief the court of appeals on her claim.

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

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