Wage Garnishment in Allegheny County
By David M. Tkacik, Esq.
In Pennsylvania, a landlord with a final judgment for debt incurred under a residential lease may garnish or “attach” the tenant’s wages. This can be a very powerful collection method and may be the only viable option for a landlord to get paid. Other types of creditors, such as credit card companies, do not have this collection procedure available, so landlords should really consider taking advantage of it.
To start a wage attachment a landlord must know who the tenant’s employer is and have a final judgment for debt incurred under a residential lease. This means that the judgment must not be appealable or have been appealed. A magistrate’s judgment in a residential landlord-tenant case, whether the tenant was in possession at the time the case was filed or not, has a 30-day appeal period. Further, the judgment must be at the county level, not the magistrate level. There are certain collection remedies available to landlords at the magistrate level, but wage attachment is not one of them.
If no appeal is filed from the magistrate, then the next step is to record the judgment at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. In order to do this the landlord must obtain an official transcript of the judgment. An official transcript of the judgment is different than the form the parties received following the hearing although the same form is used for both documents. The difference is that the official transcript is signed and stamped by the Magistrate in an additional box indicating it is true and correct copy. Once the transcript is obtained, the judgment must be recorded with a cover sheet and a Notice of Judgment (to let the tenant know that the landlord recorded the judgment) pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 236. The Department of Court Records (DCR) requires a postage paid envelope addressed to the tenant with the Notice of Judgment. At this time DCR charges $69.25 as a filing fee to record a judgment. I offer a flat legal fee to my clients of $100.00 plus filing fees to prepare and record magistrate judgments.
The next step in this process is to file a Praecipe for Intent to Attach Wages. There is a two-step procedure to attach wages and this is the first step. This Praecipe must substantially follow the format pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 3311 and must be filed within five years of the date of the original judgment. This Praecipe must attach sufficient proof that the underlying judgment was because of a residential lease, so I usually attach a copy of the landlord-tenant complaint as an exhibit. The filing fee for this Praecipe at this time is $46.50 per tenant whose wages will be attached. The filing of this Praecipe causes DCR to generate a Notice of Intent to Attach Wages which warns the tenant that 10% of their net wages per pay could be attached to pay the judgment. The Notice also informs the tenant that they have 30 days to file an Exemption Claim if they are below the poverty guidelines set by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services or if the wage attachment would cause them to be below the guidelines. This Notice must be served on the Tenant personally by the Sheriff if the tenant resides in Pennsylvania, so the Notice must be taken to the Sheriff’s Office with a “direction sheet” telling the sheriff who to serve and where. At this time the sheriff’s service fee is $75.00 per person. I usually serve the tenant at their place of work because usually the landlord has no idea where the tenant moved to and that is the only place where we can serve them.
If the Sheriff successfully serves the Tenant and the Tenant files an Exemption Claim within the 30 days the landlord has an opportunity to challenge the exemption claim if he has reason to believe that the Tenant’s exemption claim is incorrect or fraudulent. To do this, the landlord would have to file a Motion setting forth sufficient facts as to why the landlord is entitled to the wage attachment and then the court would probably schedule depositions and a hearing. However, barring a very peculiar fact pattern, this is usually not worth the landlord’s or landlord’s attorney’s time at this point because these procedures can be time-consuming.
If the tenant is served by the Sheriff and 30 days have gone by with no Claim for Exemption filed, then the landlord can take the second step of this process by filing the Praecipe to Issue Wage Attachment. There is no filing fee for filing this Praecipe at this time, but the landlord must provide DCR with a stamped envelope addressed to the employer. Upon receiving this Praecipe, DCR then sends a Writ of Attachment to the employer, who is supposed to send the attached wages (10% of the net wages) to DCR within 15 days from the close of the last pay period in each month. In my experience it takes the employer about six weeks to start sending wages once they receive the Writ of Attachment. DCR then sends the wages to the landlord approximately one-week after receiving it. I offer a flat fee to my clients of $350.00 plus filing and service fees to prepare and handle the wage attachment filings once the judgment is recorded.
David M. Tkacik, Esq. is a senior associate at Dornish Law Offices, P.C. and also a landlord and real estate investor. He can be reached at 412-765-2726 or DTkacik@Dornish.net.