Enforcement of International Judgments

A judgment is considered foreign if the state in which it is trying to be enforced is different from the state that originally rendered it.  Each state follows a different set of guidelines on how to properly enforce a foreign judgment within their borders.  Luckily, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution provides for some uniformity in enforcement: the judicial acts of one state must be respected in another.  Thus, there really is no barrier to enforcement if the judgment originates from within the United States.  However, international judgments are treated differently.

Enforcing international judgments in the United States

First, the Full Faith and Credit Clause has no bearing on the enforcement of foreign judgments.  This means that no state is required to respect the acts, orders, and judgments of a foreign country.  Thus, the proper enforcement of an out-of-country judgment hinges on the procedure outlined in each particular state.

What follows is a generalization of these processes as each state has their own laws on the matter.  The out-of-country judgment must first be recognized, or domesticated, before being enforced.  Domestication is the process of validating the judgment while enforcement is using the courts to collect on the judgment.  Upon recognition, the judgment can legally be enforced in every state as if it had originated in the United States itself.  In other words, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the US Constitution will now apply to the foreign judgment.

Generally, the burden is first on the creditor holding the judgment to prove that it is indeed valid, final and conclusive, i.e. not subject to appeal (although this requirement is construed liberally, depending on the state).  Next, the burden shifts to the debtor to object to or challenge the judgment.  There are many grounds to do so, usually enumerated in the respective state statute, that can defeat the foreign creditor’s claim against the debtor.

Obviously, a judgment handed down by a kangaroo court in Uganda will probably not be domesticated and enforced.  On the contrary, a judgment by an impartial tribunal in Spain may.  Recognized standards of justice in the foreign country will guide the US judge’s decision on whether or not the foreign judgment should be domesticated and enforced in its state court.

The debtor, of course, will try to prove, among other things, that the foreign court (1) lacked jurisdiction; (2) that there was no notice of the proceedings or opportunity to be heard (due process); that the foreign court’s decision was fraudulent or its system was prejudiced; (4) that the decision was contrary to US public policy; (5) and even, depending on the state, that the out-of-country judgment should not be enforced, despite comporting with our own notions of justice, because that particular country routinely ignores US judgments (reciprocity).

Domesticating and enforcing the judgment is the best way to collect on a foreign debt.  If the person or business who owes you money, the debtor, has returned to the United States, and left you with little recourse in your own country, consider this as a viable option.  Remember, the goal is to avoid the filing of another lawsuit.

Enforcing international judgments in Florida

Florida has adopted the Uniform Out of-country Foreign Money-Judgment Recognition Act.  As of this writing, there are thirty-one states who have also adopted it, albeit with minor revisions.  As is mentioned above, the judgment must be recognized, or domesticated, by the State of Florida, before it can be enforced.

The out-of-country judgment must be final, conclusive, and enforceable in the country of origin, and must grant or deny the recovery of a sum of money.  It should be filed with the appropriate clerk of court and later recorded in the public records of the county or counties where enforcement is sought.  Note, recording is fundamental to this process as it puts the debtor on notice that there is a judgment against him.

Simultaneously, the creditor must file with the clerk of court an affidavit detailing the debtor’s name, address, etc.  When all this is done, the judgment debtor will need to object to the judgment, specifying the grounds for nonrecognition or nonenforceabilty under the act.  Lastly, an order will be issued recognizing the out-of-country foreign judgment, of course dependent upon the debtor’s objections, and should the creditor prevail, the judgment can be enforced as if it had originated in Florida.

Enforcing US judgments abroad

It is arguably more difficult to enforce a US judgment abroad.  First, many countries differ from the United States in their definitions of jurisdiction.  For example, the US allows for long-arm jurisdiction, where a non-resident of a state can be subjected to its jurisdiction through that person’s minimum contacts, while many foreign countries prohibit it.

Furthermore, a gigantic US money judgment based on punitive damages will almost always be rejected outside of the United States.  This is because many countries, especially those with civil law systems (as compared to those with common law), consider punitive damages as contrary to their public policy.

Thus, enforcing a US judgment abroad will undergo rigorous scrutiny by the target country.  The same barriers to enforcing foreign judgments in the United States exist for US judgments abroad.  As such, if you foresee enforcing your judgment in a foreign country, it would be wise to make sure your lawsuit in the United States comports with the foreign countries notions of justice.