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Gerber v. Gerber

June 1, 2006



A county's attempt to collect on a child support arrearages judgment through administrative income withholding is not barred by the 10-year statute of limitations for actions on a judgment, Minn. Stat. § 541.04 (2004).


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meyer, Justice.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.


This case presents the narrow issue of whether the 10-year statute of limitations for an "action" brought on a judgment, Minn. Stat. § 541.04 (2004), applies to a county's administrative attempt to satisfy a child support obligor's arrearages through income withholding collection efforts. In 2004 respondent John Gerber (Gerber) filed a motion to prevent appellant Anoka County from continuing to withhold from his income to collect on a 1993 judgment for child support arrearages and to seek a refund for all payments made since September 13, 2003. The district court denied the motion because it said income withholding is an administrative remedy that is not affected by the statute of limitations. The court of appeals held that the statute of limitations does apply because administrative income withholding is a judicial remedy, and thus an action under the statute of limitations. Gerber v. Gerber, 694 N.W.2d 573 (Minn. App. 2005). We reverse.

Respondents John Gerber and Darlene Gerber (n/k/a Darlene Nelson) were married and had five children. On November 5, 1981, Nelson petitioned for dissolution of the marriage. The district court issued an order for temporary relief awarding Nelson temporary custody of the children and "$900 per month or 45% of [Gerber's] net income for support of the minor children payable through Anoka County Social Services." The order specified that "[s]upport shall be withheld from [Gerber's] wages." A substantially similar provision was included in the court's February 12, 1982, final judgment of dissolution. The wage withholding clause said "[Gerber's] employer shall withhold said child support from [Gerber's] net income and * * * that said withholding [shall] be forwarded directly to Anoka County Social Services which agency shall then forward said support sums to [Nelson]."

On April 19, 1984, the district court amended the judgment to require, inter alia, a flat child support rate of $900 per month because of Nelson's significantly increased income and consequent decreased need for support. The order restated the income withholding mechanism for satisfying Gerber's child support obligations as provided in the February 12, 1982, judgment of dissolution. Nelson did not receive any child support payments after this April 19, 1984, order.

On November 12, 1987, the district court entered a $3,600 judgment against Gerber for child support arrearages that accrued between June 1, 1987, and September 30, 1987. On June 20, 1993, the last child of Gerber and Nelson was emancipated. On September 13, 1993, the court entered a default judgment against Gerber in the amount of $94,850 for past due child support from April 19, 1984, to May 31, 1993.*fn1 Neither Nelson nor Anoka County took any action to renew the 1993 judgment when it expired on September 13, 2003.

In May of 2001 Anoka County was successful in locating a payor of funds to Gerber, and it initiated an administrative proceeding to withhold from his income. From May 1, 2001, through April 30, 2004, Gerber made 36 consecutive monthly payments on the judgment through income withholding. On May 4, 2004, Gerber made a motion for the court to order (1) that no further actions be taken to collect on the 1993 judgment, and (2) that he be reimbursed "for all payments made since September 13, 2003," the date he said the judgment expired. Anoka County intervened in the action.

On May 31, 2004, a child support magistrate issued an order denying Gerber's motion, determining that "[a]utomatic wage withholding is an administrative remedy, not a judicial remedy, that remains in place regardless of the date of the entry of the Judgment and Decree." The court of appeals reversed, holding "wage withholding is a judicial remedy and not an administrative remedy" and thus is barred by the statute of limitations. Gerber, 694 N.W.2d at 576. The court reasoned that because the law at the time of the 1982 marital dissolution and child support judgment required a court order to authorize income withholding, it is a judicial remedy subject to the 10-year statute of limitations for an action brought on a judgment, Minn. Stat. § 541.04. Gerber, 694 N.W.2d at 576.

Minnesota Statutes § 541.04 provides, "[n]o action shall be maintained upon a judgment or decree of a court of the United States, or of any state or territory thereof, unless begun within 10 years after the entry of such judgment." The issue is whether income withholding is an "action" within the meaning of section 541.04. This is a matter of statutory interpretation that we review de novo.*fn2 Benigni v. County of St. Louis, 585 N.W.2d 51, 54 (Minn. 1998).

We considered the meaning of an "action" under Minn. Stat. § 541.05 (1974) in Har-Mar, Inc. v. Thorsen & Thorshov, Inc., where a fee dispute arose between a developer and an architectural firm following the construction of a shopping center. 300 Minn. 149, 150, 218 N.W.2d 751, 753 (1974). The architectural firm demanded arbitration to resolve the dispute. Id. at 151, 218 N.W.2d at 753. The developer refused and commenced an action for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that the arbitration demand was barred by Minn. Stat. § 541.05, which requires that an "action" on a contract or other obligation be brought within six years. 300 Minn. at 151-52, 218 N.W.2d at 754.

We recognized that an "action" was intended "both by statutory definition and at common law * * * to be confined to judicial proceedings."*fn3 Id. at 153, 218 N.W.2d at 754. We distinguished an arbitration proceeding from a judicial proceeding because "[t]he statutory design of the [Uniform Arbitration Act] * * * is to encourage voluntary, speedy, inexpensive, private, and final out-of-court arbitration of commercial contractual disputes by commercial experts." 300 Minn. at 153, 218 N.W.2d at 754. We concluded section "541.05(1) was not intended to bar arbitration of [the architectural firm's] fee dispute solely because such claim would be barred if asserted in an action in court." 300 Minn. at 155, 218 N.W.2d at 755; see also ...

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