United States: Gawker Lesson: How To Stay Enforcement Of A Judgment During Appeal

Benjamin H. McCoy authored The Legal Intelligencer article, "Gawker Lesson: How to Stay Enforcement of a Judgment During Appeal."

In March, the legal world was jolted by news that Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, was awarded a $140 million judgment against Gawker Media, the owner of an entertainment gossip blog. The underlying facts were sensational. The lawsuit was grounded in Gawker's decision to post a sex tape of Hogan on its ­website. The woman in the tape was the wife of Hogan's best friend, radio ­personality "Bubba the Love Sponge." If that weren't enough, Hogan's suit was secretly funded by Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who wanted revenge against Gawker for publishing a story about Thiel years earlier.

The legal issues were also covered extensively. The trial stood at the interplay of the right to privacy and the First Amendment's freedoms of speech and the press. Did the video depict "news" of a celebrity (Hogan)? Or did it depict an individual (Bollea), whose right to privacy in his home had been violated? In the end, the jury sided with Hogan; or, more accurately, Bollea—the individual.

Shortly after news of the astounding verdict broke, the position from Gawker was surprising: utter confidence. After all, Gawker explained, the judge had made ­numerous legal missteps that would ­certainly result in a reversal on appeal. But just under a month later, Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. How could Gawker declare for bankruptcy despite such ­confidence in its ability to succeed on appeal? The answer lies in a legal ruling that received little attention: the Florida trial court's denial of Gawker's motion to stay execution of the judgment pending appeal.

This does not mean to suggest that Gawker did anything wrong in arguing for a stay; to the contrary, its motion was well written and rather persuasive. But Gawker's situation exemplifies the devastating ­consequences that can arise when a ­victorious party exercises its right to ­execute before meaningful appellate review.

In-house counsel who find themselves engaged in similar high-stakes litigation will want to familiarize themselves with the various avenues available for ­obtaining an appellate stay. This two-part series will provide a brief overview of the ­options for obtaining a stay under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This week's article examines the mechanics of execution and the normal method for obtaining a stay. Next week, in part two, we will examine the options available to in-house counsel when ­posting a ­sizeable bond is ­simply not possible.

In both parts, it is important to ­emphasize that state and local laws are highly varied. To be fully prepared to ward off a judgment ­during ­appellate ­proceedings, in-house counsel should ­understand the mechanics for obtaining a stay under the relevant jurisdiction's rules and precedent.

The Contours of Execution

Execution refers to the enforcement of a monetary judgment. While there are ­numerous execution-related rules, they are only implicated when the losing party (the judgment debtor) fails to satisfy the judgment in a timely matter. Common types of execution mechanisms include the garnishment of wages and seizures of bank accounts and property. Usually, a victorious party (the judgment creditor) files a request for the issuance of a writ of execution with the court or clerk. Fed. R. Civ. P. 69 (Rule 69). If issued, the writ directs the U.S. Marshals or local sheriff to take possession of the property requested.

Rule 69 further provides that "the ­procedure on execution ... must accord with the procedure of the state where the court is located, but a federal statute ­governs to the extent it applies." Thus, there is a heavy overlay of state law in execution proceedings. It follows that what actually constitutes execution varies based on the ­jurisdiction. For example, some jurisdictions consider the filing of a lien as an execution remedy, while others require foreclosure on the lien. This distinction can prove critical in ­determining what actions a ­judgment creditor can take if a stay is ­issued, as in All Seasons Services v. Guildner, 89 Conn. App. 781, 785-86, 878 A.2d 370, 372-73 (2005) ("the proceeding that is clearly barred is an action to ­foreclose the lien ... as opposed to the filing of the lien").

When Can Execution Start?

Rule 62(a) provides for an automatic 14-day stay of execution after the entry of a final judgment. A final judgment also ­triggers a 30-day period for the losing party to file a notice of appeal. Many litigants are lulled into a false sense of security by the 30-day timeframe for filing a notice of ­appeal. The thinking is that one should not be able to execute if the time for filing an appeal remains open. While this may be logical, it is not the law. As soon as the 14-day period ends, the victorious party can begin execution proceedings.

Practically speaking, a judgment ­creditor will not be able to actually take ­possession or garnish bank accounts on Day 15. As noted above, the court first needs to issue a writ of execution. The ­judgment debtor can usually file challenges to the issuance of a writ, such as a motion to quash. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the ­judgment creditor will be able to begin the execution process just two weeks after judgment is entered. Even if a stay is ­eventually obtained, there is no ­guarantee that it will reverse the ­execution maneuvers that ­already took place. Therefore, it is imperative for in-house counsel to seek a stay well before the 14-day automatic stay expires.

Staying Execution by Posting an Appeal Bond

Pursuant to Rule 62(d), a judgment debtor has the right to obtain an automatic stay upon court approval of an adequate ­supersedeas bond, also referred to as an "appeal bond." An appeal bond is beneficial to both sides; it provides the judgment creditor with assurances that its judgment is secure while also giving the judgment debtor a ready means to recover its money if successful on appeal.

The amount of the bond is set by local rules. Some courts require the bond to be a multiple of the judgment, while others require it to cover the entire judgment plus any interest and/ costs that accrue ­during the appeal. Although the amount can vary, it is often around 120 percent of the judgment.

While a debtor is free to post an appeal bond itself, it is far more common to obtain a third-party surety to post the bond. By using a surety, the debtor initially only has to pay a small percentage of the ­judgment as a fee, and the surety will promise to pay the full amount. Court approval of the surety is necessary. A list of approved ­sureties is available at goo.gl/IFOy7H.

Because a surety needs to conduct a risk assessment and other due diligence, the process for posting a surety bond can take months, especially for large judgments. Given that there is only a 14-day ­window for posting a bond, in-house ­counsel should begin to search for a surety as soon as an adverse judgment becomes a legitimate possibility. An optimal starting place is with insurers with which in-house counsel have pre-existing relationships. Such familiarity can greatly reduce the time needed for due diligence and initial processing.

Court approval should be sought on an expedited basis immediately after a surety agreement is reached. If up against the 14-day deadline, consider filing an ­emergency motion to extend the stay ­pending the court's review of the bond.

In Gawker's case, the sheer size of the judgment made posting an appeal bond untenable. Next week, in part two, we will discuss the available alternatives to posting a bond pending appeal.

Reprinted with permission from the August 2 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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