Connecticut v. Doehr
Annotate this Case
501 U.S. 1 (1991)
U.S. Supreme Court
Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U.S. 1 (1991)
Connecticut v. Doehr
Argued Jan. 7, 1991
Decided June 6, 1991
501 U.S. 1
A Connecticut statute authorizes a judge to allow the prejudgment attachment of real estate without prior notice or hearing upon the plaintiff's verification that there is probable cause to sustain the validity of his or her claim. Petitioner DiGiovanni applied to the State Superior Court for such an attachment on respondent Doehr's home in conjunction with a civil action for assault and battery that he was seeking to institute against Doehr in the same court. The application was supported by an affidavit in which DiGiovanni, in five one-sentence paragraphs, stated that the facts set forth in his previously submitted complaint were true; declared that the assault by Doehr resulted in particular injuries requiring expenditures for medical care; and stated his "opinion" that the foregoing facts were sufficient to establish probable cause. On the strength of these submissions, the judge found probable cause and ordered the attachment. Only after the sheriff attached the property did Doehr receive notice of the attachment, which informed him of his right to a post-attachment hearing. Rather than pursue this option, he filed a suit in the Federal District Court, claiming that the statute violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That court upheld the statute, but the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the statute violated due process because, inter alia, it permitted ex parte attachment absent a showing of extraordinary circumstances, see, e.g., Mitchell v. W.T. Grant Co., 416 U. S. 600, and the nature of the issues at stake in this case increased the risk that attachment was wrongfully
granted, since the fact-specific event of a fistfight and the question of assault are complicated matters that do not easily lend themselves to documentary proof, see id. at 416 U. S. 609-610.
Held: The judgment is affirmed.
898 F.2d 852 (CA 2 1990), affirmed.
JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III, concluding that:
1. Determining what process must be afforded by a state statute enabling an individual to enlist the State's aid to deprive another of his or her property by means of prejudgment attachment or similar procedure requires (1) consideration of the private interest that will be affected by the prejudgment measure; (2) an examination of the risk of erroneous deprivation through the procedures under attack and the probable value of additional or alternative safeguards; and (3) principal attention to the interest of the party seeking the prejudgment remedy, with due regard for any ancillary interest the government may have in providing the procedure or forgoing the added burden of providing greater protections. Cf. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U. S. 319, 424 U. S. 335. Pp. 501 U. S. 9-11.
2. Application of the Mathews factors demonstrates that the Connecticut statute, as applied to this case, violates due process by authorizing prejudgment attachment without prior notice and a hearing. Pp. 501 U. S. 11-18.
(a) The interests affected are significant for a property owner like Doehr, since attachment ordinarily clouds title; impairs the ability to sell or otherwise alienate the property; taints any credit rating; reduces the chance of obtaining a home equity loan or additional mortgage; and can even place an existing mortgage in technical default where there is an insecurity clause. That these effects do not amount to a complete, physical, or permanent deprivation of real property is irrelevant, since even the temporary or partial impairments to property rights that such encumbrances entail are sufficient to merit due process protection. See, e.g., Peralta v. Heights Medical Center, Inc., 485 U. S. 80, 485 U. S. 85. P. 501 U. S. 11-12.
(b) Without pre-attachment notice and a hearing, the risk of erroneous deprivation that the State permits here is too great to satisfy due process under any of the interpretations of the statutory "probable cause" requirement offered by the parties. If the statute merely demands inquiry into the sufficiency of the complaint, or, still less, the plaintiff's good faith belief that the complaint is sufficient, the judge could authorize deprivation of the defendant's property when the claim would fail to convince a jury, when it rested on factual allegations that were sufficient to state a cause of action but which the defendant would dispute, or in the case of a good faith standard, even when the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Even if the
provision requires a finding of probable cause to believe that judgment will be rendered in the plaintiff's favor, the reviewing judge in a case like this could make no realistic assessment based on the plaintiff's one-sided, self-serving, and conclusory affidavit and complaint, particularly since the issue does not concern ordinarily uncomplicated matters like the existence of a debt or delinquent payments that lend themselves to documentary proof. See Mitchell, supra, 416 U.S. at 416 U. S. 609. Moreover, the safeguards that the State does afford -- an "expeditious" post-attachment notice and an adversary hearing, judicial review of an adverse decision, and a double damages action if the original suit is commenced without probable cause -- do not adequately reduce the risk of erroneous deprivation under Mitchell, since none of the additional factors that diminished the need for a predeprivation hearing in that case -- that the plaintiff had a vendor's lien to protect, that the likelihood of recovery involved uncomplicated, documentable matters, and that the plaintiff was required to post a bond -- is present here. Although a later hearing might negate the presence of probable cause, this would not cure the temporary deprivation that an earlier hearing might have prevented. Pp. 501 U. S. 12-15.
(c) The interests in favor of an ex parte attachment, particularly DiGiovanni's interests, are too minimal to justify the burdening of Doehr's ownership rights without a hearing to determine the likelihood of recovery. Although DiGiovanni had no existing interest in Doehr's real estate when he sought the attachment, and his only interest was to ensure the availability of assets to satisfy his judgment if he prevailed on the merits of his action, there were no allegations that Doehr was about to transfer or encumber his real estate or take any other action during the pendency of the suit that would render his property unavailable to satisfy a judgment. Absent such allegations, there was no exigent circumstance permitting the postponement of notice or hearing until after the attachment was effected. Moreover, the State's substantive interest in protecting DiGiovanni's de minimis rights cannot be any more weighty than those rights themselves, and the State cannot seriously plead additional financial or administrative burdens involving predeprivation hearings when it already claims to provide an immediate post-deprivation hearing. P. 501 U. S. 16.
3. Historical and contemporary practice support the foregoing analysis. Attachment measures in both England and this country have traditionally had several limitations that reduced the risk of erroneous deprivation, including requirements that the defendant had taken or threatened some action that would place satisfaction of the plaintiff's potential award in jeopardy, that the plaintiff be a creditor, as opposed to the victim of a tort, and that the plaintiff post a bond. Moreover, a survey of current state attachment provisions reveals that nearly every
State requires either a pre-attachment hearing, a showing of some exigent circumstance, or both, before permitting an attachment to take place. Although the States, for the most part, no longer confine attachments to creditor claims, this development only increases the importance of the other limitations. Pp. 501 U. S. 16-18.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and III, the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts IV and V, in which MARSHALL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 501 U. S. 26. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 501 U. S. 30.