PA Court Requires Use of Longshore Benefits to Pay Spousal Support

On November 5, 2014, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania issued Uveges v. Uveges, a published opinion that addresses the intersection of family law and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act’s (“LHWCA”) anti-assignment provision, 33  U.S.C. § 916.

The Facts–A Typical Family Law Case with a LHWCA Component:

The facts are fairly straight-forward.  The parties were married in 1972 and divorced in 2011.  While the divorce was pending, the parties entered into an alimony agreement whereby Husband would pay Wife “the sum of $2,500 per month for permanent alimony, modifiable only by remarriage, cohabitation, or the receipt by Wife of social security disability payments.”  Roughly six months after the divorce became final, Wife filed a petition to enforce the alimony agreement.  The trial court entered an order that “among other things provided for the attachment of Husband’s monthly benefits under the [LHWCA].”

Less than a month later, Husband’s prior Employer filed a petition for special relief, arguing that LHWCA benefits are exempt from attachment.  After a year-and-a-half of litigation, the trial “concluded on January 15, 2014 that the law permits an ex-spouse in Wife’s position to attach the [LHWCA] retirement or disability benefits of an ex-husband who has been found to be in contempt.”

The Law–LHWCA’s Anti-Assignment Provision:

The LHWCA’s anti-assignment provision is 33 U.S.C. § 916, which states:

No assignment, release, or commutation of compensation or benefits due or payable under this Act, except as provided by this Act, shall be valid, and such compensation and benefits shall be exempt from all claims of creditors and from levy, execution, and attachment or other remedy for recovery or collection of a debt, which exemption may not be waived.

Other state courts that previously analyzed the LHWCA’s anti-assignment provision determined that attachment was not allowed in a family court setting.  For instance, in Thibodeaux v. Thibodeaux, the Louisiana Supreme Court expressly stated that a wife could not garnish her ex-husband’s LHWCA benefits for past due child support.  See Thibodeaux v. Thibodeaux, 454 So. 2d 813 (La. 1985).  Then, in Spitalieri v. Spitalieri, 593 N.Y.S.2d 172, the Supreme Court of New York Richmond County, expressed sympathy for the plaintiff’s plight but nonetheless determined that LHWCA benefits could not be assigned.

At least one state court–before Uveges v. Uveges–allowed attachment of LHWCA benefits for child support purposes.  The District Court of Appeal of Florida, Third District, determined that child support payments could be withheld, and that the LHWCA’s anti-assignment provision was inapplicable to child support arrearages.  See Cigna Property & Casulaty v. Ruiz, 834 So. 2d 234 (Fla. 3 Dist. Ct. App. 2002).

The Reasoning–Why Uveges v. Uveges Allowed Attachment:

The Uveges court was persuaded by a Ninth Circuit decision, Moyle v. Dir., OWCP, and the Florida state appellate court’s Ruiz decision to support its conclusion that Wife could claim a portion of Husband’s LHWCA benefits.  In Moyle, the Ninth Circuit affirmed an administrative law judge’s decision that “disability benefits could be garnished to satisfy the recipient’s delinquent spousal support obligation.”  And, as mentioned before, the Ruiz court determined that Section 16’s anti-assignment provision applied to “claims of creditors” or “collection of a debt,” but a child support obligation was not a “debt.”

According to the Uveges court, Pennsylvania law has recognized that a spouse’s alimony or support obligation is not a “debt.”  As such, it follows that delinquent spousal support is not money owed to a “creditor,” and the delinquent money cannot be considered a “debt.”  As the court concluded:

In sum, because Husband’s LHWCA benefits are paid to him pursuant to federal law, and because Wife is not a “creditor” and Husband’s alimony obligation is not a “debt” under 33 U.S.C. section 916, the LHWCA benefits may be attached.  Additionally, we note our decision today is consistent with the historical treatment by Pennsylvania appellate courts of anti-attachment clauses vis-a-vis a claim for support or alimony.  We therefore affirm the trial court’s January 21, 2014 order attaching Husband’s LHWCA benefits for the payment of alimony.

Uveges v. Uveges, — A.3d —- (Pa. Super. Ct. 2014)