LINDA L. MORRISSEY,
KIRK E. MORRISSEY, Appellee
12 M.D. Appeal Docket 1997
Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court,
SUBMITTED: December 9, 1997
MR. JUSTICE SAYLOR
DECIDED: JUNE 16, 1998
The issue in this appeal is whether Pennsylvania's four-year statute of limitations applicable to an action upon a judgment operated as a bar to registration and enforcement of a foreign support order under the Revised Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act. We find that it did not and therefore reverse the order of the Superior Court.
In 1985, Linda Morrissey and Kirk Morrissey were divorced by a final decree entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Grayson County, Texas. In the decree, the Texas court directed Mr. Morrissey to pay $200.00 per month for the support of the parties' two minor children, until the first child reached the age of eighteen (the "Texas support order"). See footnote 1 Mr. Morrissey subsequently moved to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
In April, 1995, Mrs. Morrissey registered the Texas support order in the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County, pursuant to Section 4539 of the Revised Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act ("RURESA"). See footnote 2 By doing so, she sought to initiate collection of approximately $22,000 in arrearages, which she alleged had accrued under the Texas support order over the past ten years. Mr. Morrissey filed timely exceptions, asserting that registration was barred, at least in part, by the statute of limitations applicable to actions upon judgments, 42 Pa.C.S. §5525(5), by the statute of limitations applicable to foreign claims, 42 Pa.C.S. §5521(b), and by the equitable doctrine of laches.
The Lebanon County court conducted a hearing on the exceptions and determined that registration of the Texas support order was not time barred, while reserving decision on other issues, including Mr. Morrissey's challenge to the amount of the arrearages owing. On appeal, the Superior Court reversed, holding that the four-year statute of limitations pertaining to an action upon a judgment, 42 Pa.C.S. §5525(5), applied. See Morrissey v. Morrissey, 451 Pa.Super. 214, 679 A.2d 234 (1996). The Superior Court concluded that Mrs. Morrissey was entitled only to arrearages that had accrued since April 20, 1991 (four years prior to the date that registration under RURESA occurred) and remanded the matter for calculation.
RURESA and its predecessor, the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act ("URESA"), were initially developed by the Conference of Commissioners of Uniform Laws to provide a means by which to compel parents who crossed state lines to fulfill their legal duty to support their children. See generally Hon. Mark S. Coven, Welfare Reform, Contempt and Child Support Enforcement, 30 Suffolk U.L. Rev. 1067, 1078-79 (Winter 1997). Ultimately, some form of RURESA or URESA was enacted by all fifty states. See footnote 3 Id.
RURESA's express purpose of improving and extending by reciprocal legislation the enforcement of duties of support, see 23 Pa.C.S. §4501(b) (repealed), was served by requiring Pennsylvania courts to afford foreign support orders the same effect as domestic support orders. Thus, under RURESA, a properly registered foreign support order:
shall be treated in the same manner as a support order issued by a court of this Commonwealth. It has the same effect and is subject to the same procedures, defenses and proceedings for reopening, vacating or staying as a support order of this Commonwealth and may be enforced and satisfied in like manner.
42 Pa.C.S. §4540(a) (repealed).
Domestic support orders that require periodic payments are treated as judgments that vest when each separate installment becomes due, but remains unpaid. See 23 Pa.C.S. §4352(d); see also Pa.R.C.P. No. 1910.23-1(a). After each judgment obtains, statutes of limitations such as would constrain the underlying cause of action no longer apply; the only limitations periods that affect collection are those applicable to enforcement efforts. For example, a twenty-year statute limits executions against personal property. See 42 Pa.C.S. §5529. See footnote 4
In this case, the Superior Court properly treated the arrearages under the Texas support order as periodic judgments in the manner of domestic arrearages. Its decision, however, to limit the enforceability of the order to the four-year period preceding registration resulted in substantially less favorable treatment than would be afforded to a domestic support order. Under Pennsylvania law, foreign judgments are treated, in the first instance, not as judgments, but as rights of action. Historically, obligees were required to commence a civil action on the existing foreign judgment, consummating in a Pennsylvania judgment, before enforcement could be had in the Commonwealth. See footnote 5 See, e.g., Engineers Nat'l Bank v. Drew, 311 Pa. 59, 166 A. 376 (1933)(involving action on Ohio judgment); Hunt v. Snyder, 261 Pa. 257, 104 A. 603 (action on a New York judgment for support), cert. denied, 248 U.S. 566, 39 S.Ct. 9, 63 L.Ed. 424 (1918); Stilwell v. Smith, 219 Pa. 36, 67 A. 910 (1907)(action filed on Arizona judgment); see also Nobel Well, 348 Pa. Super. at 274 & n.8, 502 A.2d at 204 & n.8; see generally 30 Am. Jur. 2d Executions and Enforcement of Judgments §775 (1994). Accordingly, the four-year statute of limitations of Section 5525(5) (the "four-year statute"), directed to actions upon judgments, expressly applied. See footnote 6 Id.
However, in enacting the various statutes providing for registration of foreign judgments, See footnote 7 the legislature implemented streamlined procedures for domesticating foreign judgments, establishing registration as an alternative to the commencement of a civil action. In the case of RURESA, a foreign support order became immediately enforceable in Pennsylvania upon its registration. See 23 Pa.C.S. §4540(a) (repealed). Such registration did not require the commencement of an action, an adjudication of rights, the consummation of a new judgment or the entry of any other order of court. Rather, registration became effective merely by making a required filing, See footnote 8 and court involvement became necessary only upon the filing by the obligor of a petition to reopen, vacate or stay the registration, 23 Pa.C.S. §4540(a), (b) (repealed), and to the extent necessary to the enforcement of the registered support order. See footnote 9
Thus, RURESA eliminated the need to commence a separate civil action as the vehicle to achieve domestic enforcement of foreign support orders, and the four-year statute of limitations applicable to actions on judgments, by its terms, did not apply to registration under the act.See footnote 10
In its opinion in this case, the Superior Court acknowledged the elimination of the requirement of a civil action upon a foreign support order to achieve domestic enforcement and recognized the legislative directive to afford to such orders the same effect as accorded to domestic support orders. It found, however, that the "procedures" portion of the registration provision, 23 Pa.C.S. §4540(c) (repealed), incorporated the four-year statute into RURESA, and that the reasoning of an earlier decision, National Union Fire Ins. of Pittsburgh, Pa. v. Nicholas, 438 Pa. Super. 98, 651 A.2d 1111 (1994), also required application of the limitation. See Morrissey, 451 Pa. Super. at 217 & n.3, 679 A.2d at 236 & n.3.
In Nicholas, the Superior Court determined that the four-year statute applied to registration and enforcement proceedings under UEFJA. The court properly recognized that, by providing the registration procedure under UEFJA, the legislature intended to benefit obligees under foreign judgments by eliminating burdensome procedural requirements associated with a civil action on a judgment. Nevertheless, it concluded that:
[h]owever essentially dissimilar the two procedures for domesticating the foreign judgment, the effect of the judgments obtained is identical. Thus, there would appear to be no logical basis upon which to impose two different periods of limitations.
Nicholas, 438 Pa. Super. at 107-08, 651 A.2d at 1116 (emphasis added).
The difficulty with this conclusion is that there are, in fact, logical and legitimate reasons for adopting a uniform law providing for reciprocal enforcement of judgments (and, in the case of RURESA, support orders) which does not implicate the four-year statute applicable to civil actions brought for the same purpose. In addition to the improvement and extension of reciprocal enforcement, and in light of the fact that the registration statutes are non-exclusive, the limited applicability of the four-year statute also encourages use of the streamlined registration procedure over the more cumbersome civil action. See generally Nobel Well, 348 Pa. Super. at 275, 502 A.2d at 204-05 (recognizing the efficacy of the UEFJA registration procedure and resulting benefits to the administration of justice).
More important, application of the four-year statute simply is not required by the terms of UEFJA. See footnote 11 See 42 Pa.C.S. §4306. Statutes of limitations affecting personal actions are procedural in nature, see, e.g., Goldstein v. Stadler, 417 Pa. 589, 591 n.1, 208 A.2d 850, 851-52 n.1 (1965), and nothing in UEFJA suggests that the four-year statute should be treated any differently than any other abandoned procedural requirement associated with an action upon a judgment. Indeed, the very reason that states may apply their own statutes of limitations to foreign judgments without violating the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is because of their procedural aspect. See footnote 12 See M'Elmoyle, 38 U.S. at 327; see also supra note 10 (citing Carroll, 546 P.2d at 287).
In this case, the Superior Court also relied upon Section 4540(c) of RURESA to support its conclusion that the Texas support order was subject to a four-year limitation. Section 4540(c) provided that, at the hearing to enforce a registered support order, the obligor could present only matters that would be available to him as defenses in an action to enforce a foreign money judgment. 23 Pa.C.S. §4540(c) (repealed). The Superior Court found that such defenses included the four-year statute. See Morrissey, 451 Pa. Super. at 217, 679 A.2d at 236. Recognizing that this interpretation created an apparent conflict between subsection 4540(c) and subsection 4540(a) (requiring equal treatment as between foreign and domestic support orders), the Superior Court reasoned that subsection 4540(c) controlled on the strength of its greater specificity. Id.
Subsections (a) and (c), however, address separate aspects of the registration and enforcement process. Subsection (a) relates to the registration aspect, according foreign support orders, immediately upon registration, the same status as domestic support orders for purposes of subsequent enforcement. 23 Pa.C.S. §4540(a) (repealed). The obligor's remedy to contest registration is to challenge the order by petition to reopen, vacate or stay the order. 23 Pa.C.S. §4540 (a), (b) (repealed). As the Superior Court acknowledged, the four-year statute clearly does not apply when considering Section 4540(a), because the limitation does not operate as a bar to domestic support orders. See Morrissey, 451 Pa. Super. at 217, 679 A.2d at 236.
Subsection (c), on the other hand, is not directed to registration or to the effect of the registered order. To the contrary, it is expressly directed to subsequent enforcement, establishing the procedure for the hearing to enforce the registered support order. An action upon a judgment, to which the four-year statute would apply, is not the equivalent of an enforcement proceeding. See footnote 13 By eliminating the necessity of an action upon a judgment as a prerequisite to reciprocal enforcement of a foreign support order and providing the ministerial act of registration as an alternative, the legislature advanced the obligee to the enforcement stage, at which point the four-year statute has no relevance. Section 4540(c), then, implicated only those periods of limitation applicable to enforcement proceedings. See footnote 14
We conclude, therefore, that the four-year statute applicable to actions upon judgments does not bar registration and enforcement of the Texas support order pursuant to RURESA. This interpretation comports with the legislature's intent to maintain substantially equal access to the means to enforce support obligations as between children residing in Pennsylvania and children residing in other states. See footnote 15
Accordingly, the order of the Superior Court is reversed and the case is remanded to the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
The following actions and proceedings must be commenced within four years: * * *
(5) An action upon a judgment or decree of any court of the United States or of any state.
42 Pa.C.S. §5525(5). The term "action" itself is defined in the Judicial Code as "[a]ny action at law or equity." 42 Pa.C.S. §102. Under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, a civil action is commenced by the filing of a writ of summons or a complaint. Pa.R.C.P. No. 1007.
A contrary interpretation of Section 4540(c) would result in greater restriction upon registration of support orders than imposed upon registration of foreign judgments generally under UEFJA, which by its terms clearly does not implicate the four-year statute.
Several jurisdictions have concluded that UIFSA and FFCCSOA should be retroactively applied. See, e.g., Welsher v. Rager, 491 S.E.2d 661, 664-65 (N.C. Ct. App. 1997)(concluding that UIFSA should be applied retroactively); Child Support Enforcement Div. of Alaska v. Brenckle, 675 N.E.2d 390, 393 (Mass. 1997)(same); DCSE v. DeBussy, No. CK93-4153, 1997 WL 828402 (Del. Fam. Ct. Mar. 7, 1997)(citing cases concluding that FFCCSOA should be retroactively applied). Because neither party to this appeal has advanced such an argument, and the result reached by the Lebanon County court is consistent with UIFSA and FFCCSOA, it is unnecessary to address issues of retroactive application in this case.