Before launching into a discussion about what a “dormant civil judgment” is, it can help to have a solid understanding of simply what a “judgment” is first. In general, a judgement can be defined as a court order that contains the final decision of a case. It usually provides instructions about the rights and liabilities of the parties involved, as well as an explanation for why a court may have decided to rule a certain way.

Taking the phrase a step further, a “civil judgment” refers to a decision issued by a court in a civil case. A plaintiff who brings a successful lawsuit will receive a civil judgment that directs the defendant in the case to pay a certain amount of money, known as a “damages award”, to the plaintiff to make up for any wrongdoings.

Now, in combining these two definitions with the final component, you get the phrase “dormant civil judgment.” A dormant civil judgment is a civil judgment that was issued and has since lapsed or expired. When a judgment expires, it means that a plaintiff has waited too long to collect their damages award and thus they will be barred from taking any further legal actions to collect on the judgment.

For instance, a plaintiff who fails to collect on a judgment before it becomes dormant will be prohibited from having a defendant’s wages garnished, forcing a defendant to appear at a debtor’s examination proceeding, and/or seizing the defendant’s property, such as real estate or money in a bank account, to recover the amount of the judgment.

How Long Does the Plaintiff Have to Collect the Judgment?

The amount of time that a plaintiff has to collect on a civil judgment will depend on the laws of a particular jurisdiction. In some states, a civil judgment may lapse after only a few years (usually between three to seven in these states). In other states, like New York and Virginia, it could be 20 years before the judgment is considered expired.

Although each state has enacted its own separate laws regarding collection periods, collection procedures, and collection requirements for civil judgments, they generally provide similar guidelines. Thus, in most states, the time frame to collect on a civil judgment will start to tick when one of the following three conditions occurs:

  • Some states go by the date of when the judgment was entered;
  • Others go by the latest date that a creditor attempted to collect on the judgment; or
  • Whichever one of these two events happened most recently.

In addition, some states have statutes that allow a plaintiff to revive their judgment within ten years from the date it expired.

What Happens After the Judgment Expires?

As discussed above, when a civil judgment lapses it is known as a “dormant civil judgment”, or “civil judgment expiration”. This means that a plaintiff or the creditors will no longer be allowed to collect on the judgment using any of the following methods, such as:

  • Garnishing wages from the defendant’s paycheck or bank accounts;
  • Issuing a lien against and seizing the defendant’s property (e.g., their home);
  • Requesting the defendant to appear at a debtor’s examination proceeding;
  • Petitioning the court to hold the defendant in contempt for ignoring their duty to pay the judgment; and/or
  • In some cases, taking the remaining debt from a defendant’s business, business bank account, or filing a judgment with a state licensing board.

However, just because a judgment expires does not mean that the judgment completely disappears. The plaintiff has several options, including reviving the dormant civil judgment, or contacting the defendant directly on their own to request payment. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), a creditor may also require the defendant to pay off a debt or request that a court revive the judgment.

Is There a Way a Plaintiff Can Collect on a Dormant Civil Judgment Legally?

As previously mentioned, there are two primary ways that a plaintiff will legally be permitted to collect on a dormant civil judgment. The first method simply entails the plaintiff calling the defendant and requesting that they pay the judgment. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this method does not require the defendant to make a payment. The defendant must voluntarily choose to honor the plaintiff’s payment request.

The second option is a bit more involved and requires the plaintiff to initiate court proceedings known as, “reviving” or “renewing” the judgment. Although state laws concerning civil judgments vary widely by jurisdiction, the majority of states will allow a plaintiff or creditor to revive a dormant civil judgment within ten years from the date it initially expired. The action must also be filed in the same court that issued the original civil judgment.

Two final things of note about reviving a lapsed civil judgment is that the defendant will have an opportunity to argue against reviving the judgment and they may also file a motion to vacate the original judgment. Additionally, if the plaintiff is successful in reviving the judgment, they must make sure that they record it with the appropriate agency or else they will lose their lien rights (this usually applies to plaintiff creditors).

Can The Plaintiff Sue Me Again for The Same Debt?

As discussed above, the plaintiff may sue a defendant to collect on the same debt. This legal process is referred to as “reviving the judgment”. The amount of time that a plaintiff has to revive a judgment is usually around ten years, but this time frame will vary widely by state and can range from anywhere between five to twenty years.

In some jurisdictions, a creditor plaintiff may be allowed to renew a judgment up to two times. In others, there may be no limit on how many times a judgment can be renewed, so long as the plaintiff files within the requisite expiration date provided in the statute.

A defendant to a revival action will have an opportunity to respond to the plaintiff’s request for a renewed judgment and can attempt to contest it by:

  • Claiming that a judgment has already been settled;
  • Providing evidence that a judgement has already been paid; and/or
  • Raising the defense that the statute of limitations to revive the judgment has tolled.

In addition, although it is generally not recommended under ordinary circumstances, a defendant may also file for bankruptcy. This will eliminate the existing debt, which means that there will be no way to revive the judgment.

Can I Do Anything to Fight the Original Judgment?

One strategy that a defendant can use to avoid proceedings to revive a judgment is to file a motion to vacate the original judgment. Not only will this prevent the judgment from being revived, but it will also completely eliminate the original judgment as well. When a defendant files a motion to vacate, they are basically asking the court to withdraw their original judgment because it was based on a legal error.

Some reasons that a defendant may request a motion to vacate include that there is a clerical mistake in the final judgment order, there is new evidence that justifies that the defendant receives a new trial, and/or the plaintiff committed some type of fraud or misrepresentation.

However, this option will not be available to every defendant. Depending on the jurisdiction and the reason for the motion to vacate, these requests must be filed within a certain time frame after the judgment is issued. In some cases, that may mean as soon as 30 days from when the judgment was granted.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer Regarding Dormant Judgment?

If you have any questions or concerns regarding a dormant civil judgment, you should contact a local bankruptcy lawyer for further legal advice. An experienced bankruptcy lawyer can explain your rights and potential options for collection in accordance with relevant federal and state laws. Your lawyer will be able to determine whether there is any time left to collect on your civil judgment, or if it has expired, can tell you how to proceed.

In addition, if you wish to contest the original judgment or want to know how to block a plaintiff from reviving the judgment, your lawyer can assist you in preparing a defense and can provide representation on your behalf in court.

Finally, if the plaintiff is able to revive the dormant civil judgment and you are not able to pay for the remaining amount of debt, your lawyer can also provide guidance on whether you should file for bankruptcy. They can help you with the overall bankruptcy process as well.