Lattin v. Shamrock Materials, LLC (2/3/2022)

March 11, 2022

Arizona Supreme Court holds that, in an action on a community debt or obligation, A.R.S. § 25-215(D) does not require a plaintiff to join a debtor defendant’s spouse before executing a judgment for attorney fees and costs against community assets.

A married person sued a company for breach of contract.  The contract provided that, in a dispute, the prevailing party would be entitled to an award of attorney fees.  The company prevailed and the court awarded attorney fees.  As a judgment creditor, the company then served a writ of garnishment on the married judgment debtor’s bank account, which she owned jointly with her husband.  The judgment debtor argued that the judgment creditor could not enforce the judgment awarding fees against community assets because the judgment creditor had not joined the non-party spouse to the action in accordance with A.R.S. § 25-215(D).  The lower courts agreed, quashing the garnishment.

The Arizona Supreme Court reversed, holding that a defendant who receives an award of fees as the prevailing party in an action brought by a married plaintiff need not join the plaintiff’s spouse in the underlying lawsuit before executing on the judgment.  In Arizona, either spouse may incur a debt for the community.  But, under § 25-215(D), “[i]n an action on such a debt or obligation the spouses shall be sued jointly.”  The Court held that an award of attorney fees following the successful defense of a complaint filed by a married plaintiff is not “an action on [a community] debt or obligation” under the statute.  The court reasoned that this phrase plainly refers to a cause of action based on a community debt or obligation that can result in a damages award.  Therefore, § 25-215(D)’s requirement that a party join both spouses when asserting a cause of action only applies to a party seeking damages from community assets.    

Accordingly, the Court held that the trial court incorrectly quashed the writ of garnishment.  The non-party spouse could challenge the community nature of the debt in execution proceedings but need not have been joined as a party in the underlying lawsuit.

Vice Chief Justice Timmer authored the unanimous opinion for the Court.